French director Luc Besson's American debut is at face value what you might expect from an action film: The Professional, titled Léon in most countries, is full of shooting, shouting, sadism, and explosions. But, thanks to the sensitive shifts of Besson's untraditional script, the film ultimately comes off as distinctly European in nature. While a wisp of a plot involving a crooked cop (Gary Oldman, in one of his last indelibly psycho roles) drives Léon from setpiece to setpiece, it's the central relationship between hitman Jean Reno and young charge Natalie Portman that makes the movie so memorable. Criminals teamed with kids is nothing new: John Cassavetes' Gloria tackled the subject 20 years ago for laughs. What makes Léon so intriguing is the ironic contrast of its main characters: the milk-drinking automaton killer Reno is essentially a manchild, while Portman is wise beyond her years. The pair meet somewhere in the middle for what amounts to romance, pretty risky territory for a mainstream film. Perhaps that's why, when it came time for its release, Léon was trimmed by some 23 minutes for Stateside consumption. The footage cut (a silly dinner date, a practice hit) doesn't include gratuitous sex and violence, instead strengthening the relationship between Reno and Portman by giving him more of a back-story and her less of a strictly paternal bond to her protector. Finally available in its uncut version, Léon is mostly stronger than before, a curious mix of modern action tropes and touchy subject matter that's like a film from the French New Wave with extra squibs. The casting of Reno was smart: Far from a traditional leading man, he possesses lonely, hangdog qualities that make his naïve behavior seem plausible. Portman, meanwhile, boasts a no-nonsense, street-smart intensity that matches her character's written strengths. As with so many romantic tragedies, the same forces that bring the two together conspire to keep them apart, and, this being Hollywood, there's no way Reno and Portman would ever truly consummate their relationship—though this cut does broach the subject of sex. Instead, Besson ends the affair in a catharsis of bullets and fireballs, a fine if heavy-handed metaphor for the tumult and sacrifice of love. Few action films can claim such complexities without conceding the bang-bang stuff that brings in the big money, and if Besson's subsequent work (The Fifth Element, The Messenger) often loses the battle between the two narrative extremes of love and death, Léon is a reminder of that promise.
More from The A.V. Club