The motion picture debut of Natlie Portman was the kind of thing icky moments are made of. You can say what you want, but, odds are, most of you fellas out there first began your love affair with this gal when she took on the role of the streetwise lolita, Matilda, at the excruciatingly young age of 11. Does this make you a sicko? Oh, sure it does. However, there are about a million other sickos who felt the same way you did. The bottom line is Natalie Portman's Matilda IS sexy. She's supposed to be! She's not dirty thoughts sexy, but sexy in a deeper, innate male need to protect sorta' way. She's a doe-eyed damsel with "Can't Touch This" written all over her, but a lil' asterisk notes *for at least seven more years. Mothers, feel free to lock up your daughters now, but, bear in mind, if they walk, talk, and act like Matilda, they're not going to stay in without a fight, and the boys down the block don't interest her. She's far too cool for that school.
So how can we blame poor Leon (Reno), as he's at once seduced by Matilda's innocent charm and the need to protect her from those who mean her harm? His paternal instincts are blurred by Matilda's puppy love advances, his wiring is crossed. The man's a creature of habit; never get involved, yet, suddenly, he's become father figure, teacher, and, ehh...significant other of an orphaned rugrat who just happened upon his door.
Could you have turned your back on Matilda?
If Leon, the cold, calculated, and brutally efficient assassin, couldn't, somehow I doubt Joe Average could, either.
When Matilda's family is killed by a corrupt cop (Oldman), she finds refuge in the apartment of professional killer, Leon. Matilda explains her situation to Leon, and wants to avenge her family. She wants Leon to show her how to "clean", and in exchange, she'll clean the house, water the plants, and go buy Leon's much loved milk (of which he drinks several quarts a day, it seems). At first, Leon is tempted to kill her himself, after it becomes apparent that she's not going anywhere, but, after a fashion, he accepts her offer and begins to train her. Soon, Leon and Matilda's relationship blossoms into a love affair, buffered only by Leon's better judgment. He knows Matilda's a child, even if she doesn't, so their love is of the most innocent kind. When Matilda professes her feelings for him, Leon offers no answer, but we all know he feels the same way. She may be a child, but she's got an old soul, while Leon's an emotionally stunted man who thought he'd lost his. Matilda's presence completes him. If that's not the true meaning of love, I don't know what is.
Released in the United States as The Professional, Leon was cut by over twenty minutes, presumably to nullify the film's controversial relationship between Leon and Matilda, but, ironically, the editing made it seem all the more salacious. The scenes cut out of the film's American release actually show Leon's restraint in dealing with Matilda's love for him, and show how innocent their relationship actually was. However, there is a scene involving the pair at a ritzy restaurant, in which Matilda gets drunk and spews forth her feelings for Leon in a public forum. This scene, it can be argued, proves that Leon no longer views Matilda as a child, but as an equal. If she can learn how to kill, she can certainly have a few drinks, and if she can have a few drinks...well. I think that was probably the scene that caused the most fuss on these shores, and most probably due to the fact that it hinted at the gradual melting of Leon's resolve. Had the relationship gone beyond the film's tragic ending, would things have remained as innocent? The censors didn't think so, and, as reluctant as I am to agree with those types, I must concur.
Now does all of this make Leon a nonce? I don't think so. Any man whose been the crush to a teenage girl will probably tell you it's quite flattering. Of course, we don't act on it (most of us, anyway!), but it's flattering nonetheless. Who doesn't enjoy being cared for? The character of Leon gives us the impression that he's never felt that level of care from anyone, and it's perfectly understandable that, over time, an innocent mind like his would begin to rationalize reasons as to why these feelings are okay. It doesn't help matters that Matilda is wise beyond her years, and knows exactly which buttons to push (which bring up a whole number of distasteful hypothesis as to how she actually learned to be this way). It's the classic Nabakov story, re-written with a much more sympathetic version of Humbert Humbert, and a less opportunistic Lolita. Oh, and guns, too.
Columbia Tristar recently released Leon in a no-frills Superbit version that featured the uncut film in a "hi-def" transfer, but no extras to speak of. Now, with this Deluxe Edition, the package features two discs; one with the Superbit transfer (which is an uncompressed, ultra-high quality file that takes up a whole DVD), and a companion disc featuring a quartet of interview segments and other material. The best of the lot is a ten minute interview with the very charming Mrs. Portman, who looks back fondly at her time on the film, and hints that the long-proposed sequel to the film could very well be made (at least if it were up to her!).
There's also a pair of interviews with Luc Besson and Jean Reno, a retrospective featurette, and a trivia track that appears at the bottom of the screen throughout the film, dropping nuggets of interesting info in a way that reminded me of that old Pop Up Videos show on VH1. It's a nice set, but there seemed to be limited involvement from the film's principals (Gary Oldman is absent altogether!), and a commentary by Besson would have been welcome.
Leon-The Professional is one of the most charming and effective love stories I've seen, and Luc Besson's juggling of the taboo relationship and the film's powerhouse action sequences are a major coup. The film could have easily slipped over the line either way, but it maintains a very nice balance and the performances by Portman, Reno, and a gleefully over-the-top Oldman, and, while a bit limited, this new set's bonus material offers some welcome insight into the making of one of the best films of the 90's.