A dour and illiterate Italian hit man finds redemption in the company of a headstrong, orphaned girl in Luc Besson's "The Professional." 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 dour and illiterate Italian hit man finds redemption in the company of a headstrong, orphaned girl in Luc Besson’s “The Professional.” 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.

Pic was released Sept. 14 in France, where the biggest screen in Paris, the Gaumont Grand Ecran Italie, ran round-the-clock weekend screenings to meet expected demand. Movie bows stateside Oct. 21.

Offshore audiences who enjoyed the ricocheting narrative improbabilities of Besson’s “La Femme Nikita” will discover a less exotic blend here. In much the same way that the roadway antics of “Speed” seem most plausible to folks with no firsthand experience of L.A.’s true traffic patterns, so this New York-set tale will be most credible to viewers who have never set foot in Gotham.

Tale dawdles to the half-hour mark when Mathilda (Natalie Portman), a bright but abused 12-year-old truant, whose wardrobe seems to come from the same haberdashery as Jodie Foster’s in “Taxi Driver,” returns from the grocery store to find that Stansfield (Gary Oldman) and his trigger-happy crew have used her entire family for target practice.

Mathilda is reluctantly taken in by her towering and taciturn neighbor, Leon (Jean Reno), a self-described “cleaner” (Bessonian slang for “hit man”). The ambitious, only mildly bereaved waif thinks that’s “cool” and begs 40-ish Leon to teach her his trade.

The utter isolation of Leon’s life — his one true love is a carefully tended house plant — is conveyed by his inability to identify Mathilda’s obvious dress-up impressions of Madonna, Marilyn Monroe and Charlie Chaplin.

The mismatched couple bonds, and the formerly invincible hit man becomes vulnerable. Reno — as strongly linked to Besson’s screen career as De Niro is to Scorsese’s — finds a way to prove his love for Mathilda 10 minutes before the closing credits roll.

Dialogue is adequate but lacks a single quotable or memorable line. Fortunately, the visuals — shot on location in Little Italy and Spanish Harlem, with eight weeks of studio interiors in France — put the story across. Widescreen lensing favors tight close-ups, and multiple shoot-‘em-ups are edited with panache. Portrayal of elapsed time, however, is very wobbly.

Newcomer Portman shows an appealing spontaneity although she never registers as a real child. Danny Aiello is good, if familiar, as a restaurateur.

Oldman’s edgy perf as a drug- and power-crazed turncoat, while not one of his best, is by far the most interesting characterization on display.

Eric Serra’s occasionally imaginative and faintly Oriental wall-to-wall score sometimes tries too hard to imbue sequences with intensity or suspense, but is not unduly invasive.

The Professional

French

Production

A Columbia (U.S.)/Gaumont Buena Vista Intl. (France) release of a Gaumont/Les Films du Dauphin production. Executive producer, Claude Besson. Directed, written by Luc Besson.

Crew

Camera (color, Technovision widescreen), Thierry Arbogast; editor, Sylvie Landra; music, Eric Serra; production design, Dan Weil; art direction, Carol Nast, Gerard Drolon; set decoration, Carolyn Cartwright, Francoise Benoit-Fresco; costume design, Magali Guidasci; sound (Dolby), Pierre Excoffier, Gerard Lamps, Francois Groult, Bruno Tarriere; special effects supervisor, Nicky Allder; assistant director, Pascal Chaumeil; casting, Todd Thaler (U.S.), Nathalie Cheron (France). Reviewed at Publicis Elysees cinema, Paris, Sept. 14, 1994. Running time: 106 MIN.

With

Leon - Jean Reno
Stansfield - Gary Oldman
Mathilda - Natalie Portman
Tony - Danny Aiello
Malky - Peter Appel
Mathilda's Father - Michael Badalucco
Mathilda's Mother - Ellen Greene
With: Elizabeth Regen, Carl J. Matusovich, Randolph Scott.
(English dialogue)

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