The concept of an older, adult hero taking on a younger sidekick to aid him in his work is nothing new in pop culture. It's been around since the Golden Age of comics in the form of Batman and Robin, Captain America and Bucky, The Human Torch and Toro, Sandman and Sandy, Green Arrow and Speedy, Aquaman and Aqualad, Flash and Kid Flash., etc. You get the picture. In Japan, Lone Wolf and Cub was both a popular manga and film series in which a lone samurai roamed the countryside with his infant son in tow. KICK ASS (2010) brought us the insanely twisted father-daughter duo of Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage) and Hit Girl (Chloe Grace Moretz). But all of the characters listed here (and others) were basically good guys, fighting crime and injustice. They were true heroes that their young charges could look up to and admire. They weren't professional killers. After all, it would be crazy for a hit man to adopt a young girl and train her in the fine art of assassination.
Crazy as it may be, that's the brilliant, "put-it-on-a-bumper-sticker" conceit of Luc Besson's fuel injected thriller LEON (1994) (released in the U.S. as THE PROFESSIONAL). I saw this when it first came out and enjoyed it immensely. I watched it again the other day for the first time in over 20 years and it holds up extremely well. The addition of 24 minutes of previously unseen footage helped to flesh out the characters and their touching but doomed relationship.
Jean Reno stars as Leon, a professional killer in the employ of Tony (Danny Aiello), a mafioso with headquarters in New York's Little Italy. Leon makes a good living but he lives a solitary, and isolated existence, devoid of any human contact. The only living thing he cares about is his potted plant. He drinks gallons of milk and patiently waits for his next assignment.
Mathilda (Natalie Portman), is a twelve-year-old girl who is left orphaned when her family (father, mother, sister and brother) are all brutally killed by bent DEA agent Norman Stansfield (Gary Oldman) and his goons. With no where to go, no one to turn to and fearing for her life, Mathilda knocks on neighbor Leon's door for help. He reluctantly takes her in on a temporary basis of course but Mathilda burns with a desire for vengeance. She coaxes Leon into teaching her the tools of his trade so that she can kill Stansfield and his men.
After some initial resistance, Leon eventually gives in and begins showing Mathilda the ropes of professional killing. All the while the two form a genuinely sweet relationship with Mathilda falling in love with the broken older man. Things come to a head in a spectacularly staged gun battle in Leon's apartment building in which he goes up against a small army of police officers.
Writer/director Luc Besson is equally adept at the character bits in the film as he is at orchestrating blistering action sequences. Reno is touching, Aiello solid and Oldman crazy as only Gary Oldman can play crazy. But the real standout here is young Natalie Portman in her motion picture debut. She's funny, sweet, vulnerable, tough, cocky and completely adorable. When I saw LEON for the first time I recall thinking that this girl had a great career ahead of her. I wasn't wrong. With appearances in the three STAR WARS prequel films, V FOR VENDETTA (2006), playing Jane Foster in two THOR movies and a Best Actress Academy Award winning performance in BLACK SWAN (2010), Portman has proved herself both a bankable movie star and a very talented actress.
LEON is a terrific film. Part action thriller, part quirky relationship comedy/drama, it's well written, directed and acted. Kudos to all involved. Recommended.