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We Risked To Be Classified X and Not To Be Able To Be Presentable on the American Territory

May 18th, 2009 · 6 Comments

Léon / The Professional (1994)
Written by Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen (uncredited)
Directed by Luc Besson
Produced by Les Films du Dauphin/ Gaumont
Running time: 110 minutes (theatrical version)/ 136 minutes (Version Integrale)

Leon, 1994, poster Leon, 1994, poster

What the *&#! Is This About?
At a restaurant in Little Italy, mafioso Little Tony (Danny Aiello) dispatches a quiet, milk-sipping foreigner named Léon (Jean Reno) to settle a business dispute for one of his associates. Infiltrating a hotel where a rival gangster is barricaded with his security detail, Léon sneaks inside with near supernatural stealth, eliminating bodyguards one at a time and delivering his benefactor’s message succinctly. The assassin then returns to his Manhattan apartment building, where he discovers one of his neighbors – 12-year-old Mathilda (Natalie Portman) – smoking on the stairwell. Enduring an abusive father and a despised stepmother and stepsister, Mathilda’s only joy in life seems to be taking care of her 4-year-old brother. She asks Léon, “Is life always this hard, or just when you’re a kid?” He answers, “Always like this.”

Léon’s life is limited to Gene Kelly movies at the cinema, a potted plant he cares for and his job as a “cleaner” for Little Tony. Meanwhile, Mathilda’s father (Michael Badalucco) has gotten himself in deep water with a unit of rogue NYPD detectives, cutting a package of dope he was supposed to hold. Led by a pill popping psychopath named Stansfield (Gary Oldman), the cowboy cops return the next day and gun down Mathilda’s family. Returning to the massacre from the grocery store, the girl escapes death by pleading with Léon to let her into his apartment. With nowhere for her to go, Mathilda implores Léon to help her avenge her brother’s death by training her to be a cleaner. He shares his professional code – “No women, no kids, that’s the rules” – and lets Mathilda practice “cleaning” with a pellet rifle. The pair becomes attached, and the assassin has no choice but to get involved in her personal vendetta.

Leon, 1994, Jean Reno, Natalie Portman

Who Should Be Held Responsible?
When filming wrapped on the 1990 French language action thriller Nikita, actor Jean Reno and writer-director Luc Besson sought creative inspiration in different time periods. After appearing as a ruthless “cleaner” who erases the mistakes of field agents, Jean Reno achieved considerable fame in France by starring in the time travel comedy Les visiteurs. Writer-director Luc Besson turned his attention to an ambitious science fiction epic he’d dreamt up in high school. It had a baffling title – Zaltman Bléros – and a quarter of Besson’s script was deemed too ambitious to even film. It was felt that advances in computer technology and a falling dollar were at least 16 months away. Keeping himself occupied, Besson turned to another idea. Producer Patrice Ledoux recalled, “So he said, ‘You know, we stop Nikita with this character, with Jean. Why not take him and make a kind of spin-off of it?’ And that’s the way it started, so in a few months, Luc wrote the script, with this character, and shot this film just to wait for The Fifth Element.”

Luc Besson’s intention had been to turn directing duties for the Nikita spin-off over to another director. The quality of the script he wrote in 30 days changed the filmmaker’s mind. The good news for Jean Reno was that Besson’s next picture would be Léon. The bad news was that as director, Besson was no longer sure that Reno was the best actor for the part. Besson recalled, “Jean could be proud to be in the middle of these people: DeNiro, Pacino, Mel Gibson and some the others. To see all these people, naturally spread in the four corners of the planet, took me three months. The balance was rather strange. All were formidable. All were different. Certain, very frightened by the script, the other rebels. The others were interested, but not enough, in my taste. I needed an actor in hundred percent … The problem of my list, it is that these actors have already made so formidable things that it is difficult to motivate them profoundly. Jean will give to me everything.”

Leon, 1994, Jean Reno

When it came time to finance Léon, Luc Besson recalled, “At first, I went to Warner, to see Billy Gerber, whom I had met on Subway and who follows me since. But that was not able to be made. Then I visited Mark Canton, the boss of the Columbia. They had already contacted me. I said, ‘I turn in four weeks, it is Jean the main actor. That interests you to buy the film for the United States or not?’ There were not other discussions of that one. And they said yes! They said simply, ‘We have reserves, we can discuss it.’ In fact, there were some too hard scenes for the United States, we risked to be classified X and not to be able to be presentable on the American territory. That arranged. It is necessary to say that the version that they read was much harder than the final version. My rough draft was very black.”

Asked whether Léon had been written in French or in English, Luc Besson described his screenplay as, “A sort of gibberish. Before the shooting, I worked with an American scriptwriter for the dialogues.” Warner Bros. VP of Theatrical Production Bill Gerber had introduced Besson to screenwriter Robert Mark Kamen – author of The Karate Kid movies – who would later collaborate with Besson writing The Transporter franchise and Taken among several others. According to Kamen, he rewrote Léon as well, which he stated “was really, really French, in the sense that in Luc’s version, the hitman slept with a 13-year-old girl, which Luc thought was totally normal.” $16 million in financing came from French studio Gaumont, with Columbia Pictures picking up distribution rights in the U.S. and JVC purchasing the rights in Japan.

Leon, 1994, Natalie Portman

The search then began for an actress to play Mathilda. Casting director Todd Thaler recalled, “I don’t think Luc fully understood that at first, how big a challenge it was going to be to find parents who would let their 11-year-old daughter play this part.” 2,000 girls in New York, Chicago, London and Paris were seen, among them, an 11-year-old named Natalie Portman, who was turned away because Thaler felt she was too young. Ultimately, Portman was one of six finalists who were called in to meet with Besson. Thaler added, “So I brought Natalie Portman in. He said to her, ‘I want you to imagine your whole family … is shot. Your father is dead in the living room, your mother is in the bathtub, your teenage sister she is dead on the floor, and your baby brother is killed under the bed.’ And after he said the thing about her baby brother, Natalie just started weeping. And we knew then there was no other choice, no other candidate could have done what Natalie did.”

11 years later, Natalie Portman recalled, “I was very emotional sort of little kid and my parents were like, ‘There is no way you’re doing this movie. This is absolutely inappropriate for a child your age to be doing this film.’ And I was like, ‘This is the greatest thing I’ve ever read, you’re gonna ruin my life’ and it was basically just fighting with them so much.” She added, “One of the things my parents were particularly concerned about was the smoking in the movie. They had a very detailed agreement with Luc about what could be used. I was only allowed to have five cigarettes in my hand in the entire shooting of the film. I wasn’t allowed to inhale. There weren’t allowed to be real cigarettes, which you can actually see in the movie. You see me, like, putting them to my lips, but you never see me, like, blowing out. Or you just see me like holding a cigarette. And then the other thing was that she has to quit during the movie, which is also in there.”

Leon, 1994, Peter Appel, Gary Oldman

Léon commenced shooting June 1993 in New York, with most of the exteriors filming in Spanish Harlem and Chinatown. For the interiors, the production moved to Epinay Studios outside Paris. Luc Besson recalled, “The shooting is hard but takes place without grave problems. I have only two, two big daily and insoluble problems. The first one, it is the division. For trade union and economic reasons, it was more practical to make the outsides in New York and the inside in studio in Paris … Example of puzzle: Mathilde’s apartment is in the 103rd Street. Mathilde’s corridor is in Chelsea Hotel and Leon’s apartment is in studio in Paris. As for ‘the outside – street’, which coincides with the apartment, it was turned in the 120th Street. So, Mathilde cries behind the door in New York and Leon opens to her in Paris, six weeks later. The second big problem, it is Natalie. And in spite of her small size, it is an enormous problem.”

Besson added, “I realized, too much late, that I confided half of the film to an 11-year-old child. In spite of her excellent play, her intelligence, her kindness, she is eleven years old. That means that at the end of twenty minutes of intense play, she is tired, she grows tired of everything as soon as that is dawdles, she wants to enjoy herself as soon as possible. At one go, in the first fatigue, I realize in which bad adventure I put myself. She can drop me at any moment, decide that it does not amuse her any more, to say that she wants to return at home, to steep herself in her child’s shell. What to do, in a similar case? Brandish the contract in front of the child and threaten her with a lawsuit? As soon as I feel that she gets tired, that she sighs, I stop turning on her, send to play her half an hour Scrabble, balloon, in anything. The technique works well.”

Leon, 1994, Natalie Portman

Looking back a decade after the release of Léon, Natalie Portman recalled, “The sexual undertones – or overtones – of the film were also things that my parents tried to scale down. In the original script, there was a scene where Mathilda was in the shower and Léon sort of walked in by accident and he, you know, gave her a towel and she was like, ‘I don’t care’ or whatever. So that was where we axed. It’s a very pure sort of thing in the film. You know, it doesn’t cross that line, it’s just these two people who are so alone and happen to find each other within this sort of graveyard.” To ensure Léon would not pose a threat to Mathilda, Besson had directed Jean Reno to think of his character as a 14-year-old, a rather slow minded one at that. Reno explained, “If you’re fast and you take her, you will do bad things because you control situation. If you’re slow, she will control the situation, of course.”

When Léon went before a test audience in the U.S. – under the title The Professional – audiences rebelled against the relationship between the hitman and his young protégé. Editor Sylvie Landra recalled, “There is a scene that is in the long version of The Professional where she goes out dressed with a dress that he offer her and she has some makeup on and she ask him if he wants to be her first lover. We went to the first preview, but then when that scene arrive, they all started to laugh, but just giggling, because they were annoyed and uncomfortable about the situation.” Producer Patrice Ledoux added, “They were very, very uncomfortable. So we shot – we cut – 40 minutes, I think, something like that, and the next tests was great.” Luc Besson’s curt response to the film’s reception was, “No, I’m not responsible for what people think. The story is about two kids, a girl and a boy. They’re both 12 years old, in their minds, and they’re both lost and they love each other. And the rest is just your problem.”

Leon, 1994, Natalie Portman, Jean Reno

Opening September 1994 in France and a month later in the U.S., critics were less than enamored of the film. Janet Maslin, the New York Times: “… Mr. Besson has now made a film in New York, featuring characters who speak like Americans, think like Frenchmen and behave appallingly in any language. The Professional lacks the sexy elan of La Femme Nikita and suffers from infinitely worse culture shock.” Jonathan Rosenbaum, the Chicago Reader: “For sweaty, suspenseful thriller mechanics the first reel or so is fairly adroit, and action buffs who like explosions probably won’t feel cheated. But the sheer oddness of the New York world constructed for this film – where cops and crooks are literally interchangeable, and Oldman and Danny Aiello are stranded in roles that pick over the leavings of earlier parts – ultimately seems at once too deranged and too mechanical.” Lisa Nesselson, Variety: “Shooting entirely in English for the first time since his runaway local hit The Big Blue, Besson delivers a naive fairy tale splattered with blood. Mix of cynicism and sentiment will ring hollow to cine-literate sophisticates but may play well to the gallery.”

A modest hit in the U.S. with $19.2 million in receipts, “the gallery” went wild for Léon overseas, buying $26 million in tickets. This prompted Luc Besson to deliver a “Version Integrale” of the film for French theatrical release in the summer of 1996, restoring 26 minutes to the running time. Among the footage put back in was the hotly contested scene where Mathilda sexually propositions Léon (leading to a revelation by the assassin of how he was orphaned) and added scenes of Léon mentoring his young pupil on “cleaning”, using a coke dealer as target practice. Variety’s Lisa Nesselon wrote, “The restored story – with its greater, close-to-carnal emphasis on the love of Mathilda for Léon – now makes more emotional sense. Whether it makes more commercial sense beyond Gallic and select Euro-screens is open to debate.” Léon never earned a theatrical re-release in the U.S.

Leon, 1994, Jean Reno, Natalie Portman

Should I Care?
Léon – alias The Professional – features three shootouts choreographed with such intense grandeur that it qualifies as one of the most exciting, no holds barred action films ever made. In addition to the dizzying cinematography (Thierry Arbogast) and crackerjack editing (Sylvie Landra) nothing about the violence is club soda: characters enter the crosshairs regardless of gender or age, some bad guys live, some good guys die and more police officers end up drawing combat pay than when Arnold paid a visit to the cop shop in The Terminator. The novelty of the picture – an ambitious attempt by Luc Besson to direct a movie set in the real world – doesn’t extend to obeying conventions like the laws of physics though, with Léon able to wield the same survival skills as Casper the Friendly Ghost.

To enjoy Léon is to accept a 14-year-old French boy’s vision of New York City – just as well titled Hitman vs. Police – with all the logic this tableau would encompass. Once you make that leap, the elegant cool of the film’s visual style and its warped sense of family values become damn hard to resist. Adding to the film’s immense pleasure is the unconventional casting of Jean Reno and an 11-year-old Natalie Portman, hardly the types for cookie cutter action-thrillers. Instead of being tools of the plot, both actors are tasked with injecting joy, desire, goofiness and feeling into their roles, almost as if they were playing real people. Despite being a fixture in these flicks, Gary Oldman gives what might be his most vicious big screen sociopath ever. Eric Serra turns in a musical score that is equally full throttle and whimsical, or, I’ll just say it, so irresistibly French.

© Joe Valdez

Leon, 1994, Natalie Portman

Where Are You Getting This *&#!?
“Reno + Besson = Leon” By Agnes Cruz & Alain Kruger. Premiere, October 1994

L’histoire De Léon. By Luc Besson. Sony Magazines (1996)

“Luc Besson” By Richard Jobson. The Guardian, 23 March 2000

“10 Year Retrospective: Cast and Crew Look Back” LéonThe Professional (Deluxe Edition). Sony Pictures (2005)

“Sweet revenge: Hollywood screenwriter writes his own happy ending” By Patrick Goldstein. The Los Angeles Times, 9 March 2009

Tags: Crooked officer · Gangsters and hoodlums · Hitman · Interrogation · Master and pupil · Shootout

6 responses so far ↓

  • 1 J.D. // May 19, 2009 at 1:40 pm

    Ahh, Gary Oldman at his most wonderfully unhinged best. Some accuse his performance of slipping into over-the-top camp but I find his psycho cop about as fierce and frightening as Dennis Hopper in BLUE VELVET.

    Natalie Portman is just great too and is able to give such an incredible performance at such a young age.

    I also thought that this is one of Jean Reno’s best performances — incredibly minimal but that’s because his facial expressions, esp. his eyes which express so much.

  • 2 kelsy // May 20, 2009 at 10:31 pm

    This is one of those movies that I always want to get around to but just haven’t yet. It’s now added to my Netflix queue.

  • 3 Marilyn // May 21, 2009 at 1:48 pm

    Ah, I love this film! Reading Besson’s fractured English reminds me somehow of Oldman in this role. I never saw the cut version, and I’m glad. Great write-up as usual, Joe.

  • 4 AR // May 21, 2009 at 3:30 pm

    This is a rewrite of a previous entry, right? I think I commented then that I needed to see this again and that’s still true. No idea which cut I’ve seen, though I know I’ve seen the movie at least twice and really like it.

    I saw Nikita too 10+ years ago after seeing the American remake w/Bridget Fonda. It’s been so long now that I’ve lost most of the details, but I recall liking the original a lot more.

  • 5 Shawna // May 22, 2009 at 5:06 pm

    I actually saw this movie last year on the recommendation of another friend. I really enjoyed it. Natalie Portman was perfect for the roll. I especially liked the escape scene where he sends her down the vent shaft. Very cool

  • 6 Joe Valdez // May 23, 2009 at 7:47 pm

    J.D.: If you overlook Luc Besson casting his wife as Joan of Arc, he’s a filmmaker who has enjoyed enormous success filling roles with the right people. Even the rogue’s gallery of renegade cops in Léon had perfect looks. Thanks for commenting!

    Kelsy: If you enjoy this, don’t hesitate to add Nikita, or La Femme Nikita, onto your queue as well. There is no better lesson at the difference between a Hollywood sensibility and a French sensibility than watching that film and the American remake Point of No Return, which is essentially the same script, but a completely different movie.

    Marilyn: I get the feeling Besson was writing about the film’s production history in French and the erstwhile translator made somewhat of a hatchet job with the English translation. Too bad the French didn’t colonize the New World, then I could understand what the little man with a big imagination was talking about. Thanks for commenting, as always!

    Amanda: You are correct. This is a rewrite of a May 2008 article, about 1,500 words longer than the previous draft. Hopefully this version will convince you to get on the stick and see this! Point of No Return has its fans, mostly Bridget Fonda fans, I think, which I count myself as. The actual movie smells like reclaimed water to me. Nikita was virtually the same script, but seemed so much more sensual and imaginative.

    Shawna: Thanks for commenting. I hope this one didn’t give you nightmares.

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