Luc Besson, the interesting French filmmaker best known for La Femme Nikita, has the voluble, naive, fou Gallic affection for New York City of a moviemaker who fell in love with the town via Gene Kelly movies and newspaper stories about la Mafia. In The Professional, his first American movie, Besson sees marvelous visual possibilities in the existence of crummy tenement hallways strewn with mowed-down bodies. He sees cinematic romance in the fluorescent-lit downtown offices of corrupt drug-enforcement agents, in hole-in-the-wall eateries in Little Italy like the one presided over by Danny Aiello as Tony, a Mob capo, and in the unorthodox father-daughter-teacher-protégée love relationship that arises between an eccentric, solitary, satchel-eyed Mob hit man called Leon (Jean Reno) and his down-the-hall neighbor, a 12-year-old girl called Mathilda (12-year-old Natalie Portman in her first movie role), after her family is murdered by DEA thugs under orders from a psycho boss (Gary Oldman).
Ah, monsieur, you can lead a Frenchman to the Big Apple, but you can’t make him a New Yorker — and that’s exactly what makes The Professional so fascinating. Reno (a longtime Besson collaborator with a compelling, Stallone-homely face and previous experience playing a hit man in Nikita) may be working with New York natives like Aiello and young Portman, but under Besson’s tutelage, the French actor manages the cool trick of making Aiello act less New Yorkish than ever. And Portman — gravely beautiful with her dark hair shingled in the kind of Louise Brooks bob only a French girl not slave to YM magazine would in fact be self-confident enough to try — reacts to Besson’s ministrations by making Mathilda into an extraordinary child.
She’s not Lolita, though you’ll feel Nabokov’s presence here in the delicate bird bones of her thin shoulder blades. She’s not an exotic out of Diva, though you’ll recognize the violent poetry of that Beineix masterpiece in the imagery. Mathilda is like no New York City girl-child I’ve ever seen riding the subway. And I couldn’t take my eyes off her. There’s a lot that’s rough and out of control in The Professional — Aiello is low on energy, while Oldman indulges in a performance so operatically unhinged you’d think the actor was galloping toward the playing fields of Mickey Rourke. But there’s even more that crackles here in enjoyable homage to the city that never sleeps. A-