My Favorite Movies #2: Leon: The Professional

In my last blog, I mentioned that while most people’s favorite movie is on the tip of their tongue, the rest of their “top five” may take more thought. Fortunately, my number two is also on the tip of my tongue: Leon: The Professional. The story:

When an abused twelve-year-old Girl’s family is killed by corrupt DEA Agents, she is reluctantly taken in by a reclusive and emotionally handicapped Hitman.

“Awesome” does not begin to describe how awesome this movie is. For years, this was my #1, and it took a lot to knock it from that top position. I saw “The Professional”, the bastardized American version, recut to be “more suitable” to American audiences, on TV when I was way too young to understand or appreciate it. All I knew was this was something unique. When I was older, I saw “The Professional” on DVD and finally understood just how unique it really was. From the characteristic wide-angle cinematography and electronic soundtrack to the abnormally deep character development and epic action sequences, this movie stands alone in the canon of cinema. And when I finally saw the COMPLETE International version of the film, titled simply “Leon”, I was forever sold on its brilliance.

This was the movie that really launched director Luc Besson into the American consciousness. He followed this up with the sci-fi head trip that is “The Fifth Element”, and before “Leon” he made the film “La Femme Nikita” that was quickly turned into a successful television show on this side of the pond. But it was “Leon” that made the future writer of “Taken” and “The Transporter” a star here in the US.

This is also the film debut of the ever entrancing Natalie Portman as the twelve-year-old assassin-in-training Mathilda. In my opinion, this is still her greatest role and her strongest acting (though I haven’t seen “Black Swan” yet).

Mathilda

Star Jean Reno, seen more prominently in the first “Mission: Impossible” and the absurdly light-hearted “The Pink Panther” remake with Steve Martin, was also launched onto the US scene in this movie, and if you think you’ve seen Gary Oldman act just because you’ve seen “Batman Begins” or “Harry Potter“, you’re wrong.

Stansfield, one of the scariest villains of all time

As I mentioned before, there are two versions of this movie. “The Professional” and “Leon”. Hollywood often sees amazing foreign films and wants to bring them over to the US, but for some reason that continues to boggle my mind, they decide to CUT the film to be “more palatable” for American audiences. (I’ll continue to save my disdain for this practice until its own entry.) In this case, Hollywood decided that some elements were too edgy for us innocent and undiscerning Americans, most involving Mathilda’s training as an assassin and her relationship with the much older Leon. And that relationship is where Hollywood REALLY screwed up.

Yes, the relationship between 12-year-old Mathilda and 40-year-old Leon is more than that of teacher and student, but saying this is “Lolita” with guns is not only a grave mistake, it’s the misunderstanding the less than intelligent Hollywood executives made when they decided to recut the film and make the relationship seem even WORSE than it actually is. In the complete version, their relationship is made very clear, and it’s clear that this is NOT “Lolita.” But when Hollywood recut the film, they removed several scenes that clarify the relationship, and in the American cut of the film, the audience is left to fill in the gaps…and of course our imaginations always fill in gaps in the worst possible way. So, in trying to sanitize a brilliant film for us poor naive Americans, Hollywood actually made the film MORE offensive and edgy than it actually is. Way to go, H’wood.

Master and Apprentice

I’m going to stop here a moment. I’m worried I may have raised some eyebrows in my cursory description of the relationship between Mathilda and Leon, and I want to make something absolutely, undeniably clear: I do NOT approve of pedophilia (as if this even needs to be said). Pedophilia is a huge, disgusting problem in our world, especially in the entertainment industry, and I can only pray there was none involved with the production of this film (as it is in so many; and I’d like to make a note that Besson’s  prevalence for exposing human trafficking in his films leads me to believe that he would not have allowed any behavior like that to occur). But back to “Leon”, this relationship is incredibly complex, so much so that it warrants its own blog entry all to itself. It is not cut and dry and needs far more explanation than I can afford here. Sufficed to say, Mathilda and Leon do NOT have a sexual relationship, though those in the audience sensitive to such material may want to steer clear despite this fact.

This film is a remarkable picture of redemption and has been a huge influence on me as a writer as well as countless other filmmakers. You’ll also notice some recurring themes throughout Besson’s work beyond the hitman motif, particularly that of Rescue and Lost Innocence.

Fortunately, the DVD and Blu-Ray releases of the film nowadays are either the complete International cut or both packaged together. Take my advice. See the International version only (sometimes called the “Extended” version). If you want to go back and see the American version after, great. You’ll see what I’m talking about regarding H’wood’s failings, but see the International version first. Brilliance in a friggin’ can.

This is the only movie in my top five typically thought of as a “guy movie”. Do you buy into the whole “chick flick / guy pic” categories? What do you think of the American audience? Do you think we need foreign work changed to be more palatable, or do you think Hollywood thinks too little of us when it comes to importing foreign films and stories? (It’s not just movies! Did you know that when the first Harry Potter book was brought over from Britain, they changed the title from “Philosopher’s Stone” to “Sorcerer’s Stone” because the publishers thought the original title wouldn’t sell?)

8 responses to “My Favorite Movies #2: Leon: The Professional

  1. First of all, I love this movie. It’s awesome. I also saw “The Professional” first, on cable of course, and didn’t quite know what I was seeing. I did know, however, that it was unlike anything I’d ever seen before. And finally seeing the “International” version made it even better. I do think that Hollywood is way too quick to chop up films for different audiences. My only caveat about that is that as long as they’re not changing the meaning or theme of something, it’s not such a big deal. But in the case of Leon, it did change a lot.

    • Agreed. We’ve seen a couple films tweaked only slightly for timing issues or pace issues, that kind of thing. I’m still opposed to editing pieces. If the film wasn’t good enough in the first place, why buy it? Of course, editing a film down is no where near as offensive as some of the other things I’ve heard about or the annoying H’wood propensity to just REMAKE a film in English. Lame.

  2. loved this movie when I saw it years ago, but I’m thinking I must have seen the cut American version because I distinctly remember being a little disturbed by their relationship. It’s definitely time for a re-watch.

    • Absolutely. And yeah, like I said, there is a fine line walked, but the American cut is far worse. I can’t wait to do my blog on the relationship and expand on the whole issue.

  3. I remember loving this film when you gave it to me in one of your shipments. Although I’ve never seen the American version, I have no desire to, but I really should buy it or watch it again. Good post!

    • You know I could just make up a list that you could add to your list but then your list would be like ten times as long and you’d curl into a ball and never watch anything again. …so just read my blog…

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