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  • Andres Benatar

Leon The Professional Movie Analysis

Updated: Oct 27, 2021

It’s not uncommon for great films to showcase a small moment where an old cartoon is playing the background of the scene. Boyhood managed to do this with a small Dragon Ball Z cameo, and for someone who grew up watching what is certainly the reason many ’90s and 2000s kids are now anime fans, it was a fantastic treat. Sadly, this small cameo didn’t mean anything in the larger context of the film.

In the case of the 1994 film, Leon; The Professional, enough random bits of the 1980’s show Transformers playing in the background is enough to illustrate that there’s more to this film than meets the eye (franchise pun intended), or in Leon’s case, his badass shades.

From what could easily be seen as just the common all too familiar tale of the near-perfect killing machine archetype all cinema assassins are made to be, Leon; The Professional is essentially a story about transformation and change. The fact that the Transformers’s cartoon is played throughout a multitude of scenes, particularly whenever the young Natalie Portman character Mathilda is around further conveys this message. Not only does she serve as an instrument of change for Leon.

But the inclusion of Transformers, a franchise model on the premise of alien robots who have to model their physical appearances according to whatever vehicle or tool they observe, and then change back to their original form, ultimately illustrates the symbolism behind Leon the hitman.

The first demonstration of Leon’s skills as a hitman is impressive in the scope of his precision and despite the physical limitations of the film’s 16 million dollar budget, it still manages to capture the action aspect of a hitman who is good at what he does, and even more dedicated to maintaining that skill set in top form.

If Leon; The Professional were shown to a modern audience today, then it’s doubtful anyone would be significantly impressed. This isn’t an assault on the quality of the film, but when taking into account the commonalities that many loan assassin narratives have utilized, it can be easy to see how the secluded life of a hitman who lives alone, keeps to himself, despite having an empathetic gaze towards the more innocent people he can’t avoid, and even a standard but basic work out routine, wouldn’t strike as anything new to a modern audience who has more time to invest waiting for the new John Wick or Mission Impossible sequel to come out. A simple look at Leon’s daily routine would certainly get any cinephile thinking it’s nothing new. But then again, as action-packed-oriented as this film would normally be seen as, it is essentially a story about an alien’s transformation.

The very first image of Leon, prior to the assault he launches on the rival gangsters of his client, shows him flashing his steampunk shades. This near-emotionless gaze already presents him more as an entity that quickly proves to be a force of death the second he takes control and begins to pick one target off after another. Once he has completed his job and returned to his crummy apartment, the base nature of what some would look at as a very pragmatic but equally mundane routine assign a deeper level of humanity few action films rarely capture when it comes to depicting a killer who prefers the peace that chosen solitude offers.

When it comes to Leon’s past, the film barely explores anything outside of him being a foreigner (much like the Transformers) who came to the states with poor English skills. But that isn’t to say this harms the film. Again, looking to the constant use of Transformer’s cartoons in the background and the way they paint the theme of transformation that dominates this film’s story essentially strengthens the idea that regardless of what happened in Leon’s past, the here and now are far more critical to this alien-archetype and the development he undergoes in what is still a new territory to adapt and essentially grow into.

In addition to the use of Transformers as a metaphor for change, Leon’s plant, which he preserves with parental care ultimately symbolizes not only the more humane side shown in his interactions with Mob boss Old Tony (Danny Aiello) but also the state that his life is currently in. In addition to being a hitman with a methodical routine, Leon leaves his money in the hands of Tony, who actually proves to be more reliable than a commercial bank.

Strangely enough, most hitman narratives would’ve used this as a way of illustrating how Leon is planning for something special. But in the case of Leon; The Professional, the money is simply left with Tony, and Leon has no big plans or dreams he’s looking to fulfill once he’s made a certain amount of money. The fact that he’s worked for Tony for a very long time and it’s never discussed how much money he has, shows that much like his plant, he is still in his own state of preservation and growth.

The sheer humble innocence Jean Reno’s demeanor has in his portrayal ultimately paints Leon more as a creature that is still in the process of growth and development as he continues to live in America as a foreigner who has merely learned how to survive rather than fully grow. The fact that he drinks milk regularly works more as a visual representation of the child-like innocence that accompanies him as he continues to grow and garner the strength such nutrients is of advocated, despite participating in violent assassinations that would easily be used to label him a monster.

Leon; The Professional has the essence of an action thriller, and the slick and intense shoot-out scenes, accompanied by the maliciously over-the-top performance Gary Oldman’s Norman Stanfield provides add to this flare. But in the end, the film is more focused on telling what is a much more human story, or at least in the case of plant and alien robot metaphors, the story of a plant still growing. This is made most evident within the humorously odd relationship Leon forges with his neighbor Maltida (Natalie Portman).

After Malthilda’s family is brutally murdered by a corrupt DEA agent, Norman Stanfield, and his goons, she initially falls under his protection. Despite Leon’s reluctance, which is ballsy enough to have him point a gun at a sleeping Malthida’s head, she ultimately grows on him, hence completing the growth and change metaphor that drives the narrative of a film that has maintained its cult status for being less about the action and more about a man who is still growing.

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Andres Benatar is resident film expert. You can hear him on the 'Cinema 237' podcast - A podcast for cinephiles.

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