Léon: The Professional tells the story of a child-like hit man named Léon and his relationship with (and subsequent training of) a 12 year-old named Mathilda who is orphaned at the hands of insane, corrupt New York cop Norman Stansfield. It features that unique French mixture of absurdity and realism: In what world does a 12 year-old boldly shoot a handgun out of a window without consequence? How is that Léon and Mathilda's relationship is simultaneously creepy and sweet? How can a cop so violently corrupt as Stansfield not be in federal prison? This constant contradiction of everyday minutiae (cartoons, trips to the market) balanced with outlandish acts of violence and queasy expressions of love function nicely to keep the audience involved and guessing as to the film's inevitable end.
While the questions above are never answered and contribute nicely to the fantastic and therefore entertaining nature of the film, their existence is sharply contrasted by the tangible realness of the film's setting: New York City in the summer. The characters sweat, bleed, and brandish grit in a wonderfully realistic way. Not only does the setting illicit intense tactile responses, it also functions as an anchor to which more extreme facets of the film are tied. The camera work and special effects intensify each explosion and make each gun battle claustrophobic, taut, and simmer with a tangible danger. Besson creates bold, exciting shots by seemingly attaching the camera to helicopters, suspending it from the tops of skyscrapers, and fixing it to the noses of missiles.
And finally, without powerful performances from the three lead actors, a fantastic plot, all the explosions in world, and unique camera work wouldn't mean anything. So thank goodness Jean Reno, Natalie Portman (at age 12, no less!), and Gary Oldman turn in wonderful, memorable moments that humanize and move the film along, alternating between quiet hushes and concussive bursts. Jean Reno's choice to play Leon as a naive and simple man-child adds depth to Leon's career of choice (or is it?) and allows Portman's Mathilda (complete with cigarette in hand and feigned woozy worldliness) to emotionally dictate their relationship. And there is not enough room in this review to describe in adequate detail Oldman's portrayal of Stansfield: Put simply Oldman is a master as he creates a character so worthy of justifiable revulsion and yet so charismatic that he is impossible to ignore.