Natalie Portman is everywhere right now. Just a week after winning a Golden Globe for her soul-baring, body-punishing, Mila Kunis-kissing performance in Black Swan, Portman is headlining the change-of-pace romantic comedy No Strings Attached. That’s just one of the five movies she’ll appear in this year. Portman’s also newly engaged and pregnant with her first child. What better time to look back at where it all began? Portman’s first movie was The Professional, in which an emotionally detached hitman meets a chain-smoking orphan who becomes his companion, his student, and his unrequited love. It’s a plotline that could seem icky — Lolita with a sniper rifle — but great performances by Jean Reno and Portman make The Professional (also known by its international title, Leon) into a uniquely tenderhearted thriller.
Keith Staskiewicz: Before he started producing all those English-language, Euro-financed, An American in Paris Shoots People movies, Luc Besson was quite the rising star. La Femme Nikita would spawn two TV shows and a remake, but it was The Professional that brought him into the mainstream. It’s a fascinating movie. It exists in this Bizarro-New York that doesn’t ever feel like real New York. Instead, it’s some strange fairy tale idealization of the city as it existed in the ’70s or ’80s.
Darren Franich: It reminded me a little bit of the snow-globe Manhattan of The Royal Tenenbaums, right down to Besson’s preference for Andersonian wide-angle lenses. I love how, in The Professional‘s New York, no one can ever hear anything through the walls of an apartment building. A bomb can go off in the apartment next door, and nobody notices.
KS: I have a soft spot in my heart for certain movies by foreign directors that tend to depict the U.S. as an idealized version of the country that’s been transmitted across the Atlantic and filtered through movies and TV. Like Paris, Texas or Stroszek or My Blueberry Nights, which also stars Portman. You can say these movies are set in “America,” but it feels weird to say that they’re set in “the United States,” because that’s too concrete of a place.
DF: The Professional reads on paper like an ultraviolent caper — a cute kid gets shot, an entire SWAT team gets decimated, and 13-year-old points a loaded gun at her own head. It almost sounds like a Jason Statham movie, except that the Portman role would be an 18-year-old math prodigy/Playmate. But for much of the running time, the movie feels light and quirky.
KS: For a hitman movie, it’s got a pretty melancholy feel. You could argue that Besson gets a little over-graphic when he kills Portman’s family for a film not aiming for realism. Leon is a character defined completely by his loss. Even the “getting ready to kick ass” montage is set to a slow, sad Bjork song instead of “Hell’s Bells” or something like that.
DF: On the same point, one thing I love about The Professional is that Leon never looks “cool” in any sort of traditional action-movie sense. He has those big sunglasses. He wears suspenders. He’s unshaven, and it’s hobo-stubble, not Crockett-stubble. Really, you have to just give props to Jean Reno: The mere fact that he makes us feel like Leon isn’t a pedophile is practically Oscar-worthy.
KS: There are some uncomfortable moments in the movie, but it never steps over the line. I think that played by two other actors, and played as written, it might be something else entirely, but Portman and Reno make it work. Leon isn’t just a hitman-with-a-heart-of-gold; he’s a hitman with the mind of a child. Natalie Portman is more sexual than she would be in anything until Closer. The fact that Reno clearly has a strong French accent when he’s supposed to be Italian isn’t distracting. It just adds to the no-place, no-time atmosphere. Plus, I love Danny Aiello, who never leaves his restaurant. Really, he never even leaves his table. He’s like what would happen if Sal from Do the Right Thing ran a criminal empire on the side.
DF: It’s an American movie with a Frenchman playing an Italian hitman, an English actor playing an American DEA agent, and an Israeli actress playing a hardscrabble New York kid. Globalism, Wow!
KS: Just like in V for Vendetta, she falls in love with a violent mystery man. Just like in Closer, The Other Boleyn Girl, and Hotel Chevalier, she’s a sexually precocious romantic aggressor.
DF: And sometimes she’s just annoyingly precocious, just like in Garden State and Star Wars: Episode 1.
KS: There’s a great scene that was deleted from the original theatrical release where Portman drinks some champagne and laughs for about two minutes. Wonderfully, it sounds exactly like her Golden Globes laugh.
DF: What is it about hitmen that make them such frequent subjects of movies?
KS: They kill people, so they already have the onscreen cool factor. And everybody likes a good anti-hero. Maybe it’s the same thing that makes Top Chef so popular; people just like seeing people at the top of their craft doing what they do best in interesting and creative ways. Except here, instead of lobster with cream sauce, it’s mobsters with a sniper bullet. That’s probably why the hitmen in movies are always the very best at what they do, instead of just some dude with leftover piano wire.
DF: Weirdly, Luc Besson has been responsible for quite a few of those “best at what they do” hitman movies. He produced and/or wrote The Transporter series, Hitman, From Paris With Love, and Taken. In a funny way, Taken almost feels like the complete inverse of The Professional: Instead of a hitman trying desperately not to deflower a virginal young girl in a decidedly French-feeling New York, you’ve got a hitman trying desperately to prevent anyone else from deflowering a virginal young girl in a decidedly American-feeling Paris.
KS: Before we finish, we have to talk about Gary Oldman, who plays the film’s villain.
DF: Oldman is incredible. Just the faces he makes in this film are beyond insane — see pictures below. He takes lines that could’ve come out of a lame French Connection rip-off and makes them sound like a drug-induced double hallucination of William Shatner and late-period Al Pacino. “I haven’t got time for this Mickey Mouse bulls—” becomes “I haven’t got TIIIIIIIMMMEEE! For this MICKEY MOUSE! BULL! S—!” (See here.)
KS: He’s basically Cookie Monster with the scenery: He chews it up and spits it out in a million pieces.
DF: Keith, that comparison is kind of silly and kind of poetic. I’m sure Luc Besson would approve. In conclusion, allow me to present: The Three Best Faces Gary Oldman Makes in The Professional. (Painfully trimmed down from a list of several thousand.)
Next Week: In The Rite, Anthony Hopkins plays an elder priest schooling an apprentice in the fine art of exorcism. We’ll be returning to the film that started the whole craze for Catholic horror, opening the cinematic Hellmouth to four decades of troubled priests and terrible virgin-snatching demons: William Friedkin’s The Exorcist. Make sure to bring your pea soup! And also some holy water — you gotta have holy water with The Exorcist.