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A Cold Guy with a Heart of Gold
by Jon Schuller

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How do we get to know the characters in a movie? Writers, directors and actors all have their own unique jobs in telling us a specific story; the classic who, what, where, when and why must be shown and explained to us in a limited span of time. Years ago, during the age of the Hollywood epic movie, films would last for 3 hours or more. Gone With the Wind, Ben-Hur, Lawrence of Arabia, The Robe are some examples of these. The audiences had more than ample opportunities to learn who was who and what their role in the story was. But films have become tighter with time and our attention spans have probably shortened with the advent of multiple social media and other platforms for everyone in the world to share their lives. Everything is quicker and it takes a supreme effort, regardless of the message, to get peoples' attentions and, especially, keep them. When I watch a movie for the first time, I realize how much information must be squeezed into the first 20 to 30 minutes of the picture. Especially the characters: their identities, their histories, their situations, their friends and/or relatives and where they live and work. What are they doing? Is it serious or humorous? Maybe it's dangerous? How will they resolve their issues to a happy or not-so-happy conclusion? Complicated isn't it? Unless you've paid good money to watch a mindless, boring, contemporary "comedy" film, with the usual suspects, where you needn't do any thinking, a movie can be quite intricate, interesting and confusing at times. Today's column will feature a 1994 movie with a list of marvelous actors and their characters (all different and unique), a classic setting and a story that is at once timeless and new. The Professional, directed by Luc Besson, starred Jean Reno, Gary Oldman, Danny Aiello and introducing Natalie
Portman. Set in New York, we meet a professional hitman no one knows anything about, but that's about to change.

Léon Montana keeps to himself in a dingy tenement apartment on New York's Upper East Side near Harlem. He has no friends, exercises every day and takes care of a small houseplant. His jobs as a "cleaner" are assigned to him by Tony, a wiseguy in Little Italy who also keeps Léon's fees for the jobs. Tony can always be found in a small club; he keeps a low profile. The hit jobs are complicated and the targets are higher level criminals or people in debt to mob loan sharks. Léon is like a ghost as we watch him invade an apartment and take out the bad guy's bodyguards, one by one. He quietly threatens the guy with a knife at his throat as he connects him to the boss. Léon is everywhere and nowhere.

When Léon notices the young 12-year old girl who lives down the hall of his apartment house, he sees she has a black eye and is smoking a cigarette. Her family is strange and dysfunctional. Her father (Michael Badalucco) has been chosen by a group of corrupt DEA agents, led by a rather unique agent, Norman Stansfield (Gary Oldman), who is himself addicted to pills. They've asked her father to hold drugs for them but they find out he's been taking some of the cocaine and selling it on his own. Stansfield is sociopathic and goes crazy, as he listens to Beethoven on headphones while methodically killing every one of Matilda's family. Gary Oldman captures the insane Stansfield's behavior as he shows how scary Stansfield really is. Matilda realizes she could be the next victim and begs Léon to put her in his apartment. Now Léon, for maybe the first time in his life, is no longer alone. He must take care of this vulnerable, yet smart, child who's become an orphan. The cold-blooded
assassin immediately warms up to her. He's become her personal bodyguard and her surrogate father. Their relationship grows quickly and they tell the building manager he's her father and she's taking violin lessons. Léon begins to teach her about guns, telescopes and the best place to carry out an assassination.

Matilda decides she's going to kill Stansfield and begins to follow him, all the way to his DEA office in Lower Manhattan. She has collected some of Léon's guns, put them in a bag and bluffs her way into the building as a young delivery girl with food for Stansfield's office. Stansfield traps her in an upstairs bathroom. She had left a note for Léon explaining her plan. He comes and rescues her as he kills 2 of Stansfield's agents. Stansfield vows revenge and goes to Tony's club where he mercilessly beats up Tony to find out where Léon lives. He assembles a large team of agents and SWAT members to assault the building. Matilda is captured by the police and they force her to give the secret knock on the door. But she gives them a phony one as Léon methodically, slowly kills the team.

He tells Matilda she'll escape through an airshaft and he will meet her later. He tells her he loves her and she's made him a completely different person. She cries as she must slide down the shaft clutching Léon's plant. She gets to the street and runs away. Meanwhile, Léon is systematically wiping out the crew and puts on a SWAT team uniform and mask, eventually getting downstairs to the building's lobby to make his escape. But Stansfield had recognized him and blocked the exit. He shoots Léon. As he stands triumphantly over Léon's bloody body, Léon puts something in his hand. It's the pin from a grenade, strapped to an explosive belt. It explodes and the entire building is seen disappearing in
flame and smoke. Matilda makes her way to Tony's club, finding out that Léon has left all of his money to her. She returns to her school and puts Léon's plant in the ground.

It's a marvelous film, deftly mixing humanity and violence. Each character is carefully drawn and we have no difficulty understanding their individual worlds and what happens when those worlds intersect with each other. Jean Reno brings Léon to life as we see his slow conversion to entering the real world as love touches his heart. Natalie Portman's screen debut was a good one as she makes us see a young girl viciously thrust into a terrible situation of violence and death. But she has a way of pushing that aside and making her new-found friend her protector; she makes him comfortable as he begins to see a different side of life. But for me, the best character and the best performance belong to Gary Oldman as the psychotic DEA agent, Norman Stansfield. We know almost at once how crazy and driven he is, letting no one and nothing stand in his way. Straddling two worlds between good and evil, he leans more towards the evil because he's been so successful at for so long. But Matilda and Léon will put a halt to his evil ways. The film won awards and critical acclaim as well. Mr. Oldman created an entirely new breed of villain, even if, as some critics complained, he was over the top. No matter as far as I'm concerned. He was the definite counter point to the relative calm between Léon and Matilda. Stansfield accepts only his own measure of necessary chaos and when it's through, goes back to Beethoven and bureaucracy. This is one film you should watch. Have some fun and see if you can guess what's about to happen next. There are still many surprises I haven't written about.

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Cinema Savant
Every other Thursday

My views on an eclectic mix of films and personalties, past and present; emotional interpretations; some laughs, some cries.

Other Columns
Other columns by Jon Schuller:

Have You Been Spying On Me Lately? For How Long?

But Can She Act? That's What I Want to Know

They're Not the Same People They Used To Be

Time Does Fly When We Watch Movies

Before Minimum or Maximum, There Was Only Prison

All Columns

Jon Schuller
I am a former New Jersey native, living in Charlotte, N.C. for almost 30 years. I am a lifelong movie lover with lots of movie trivia knowledge and soundtracks in my CD collection. I enjoy sharing my love of films with everyone and have so many fond memories growing up in darkened movie theaters. I have been married 50 years (as of December 22, 2018) and we both share a passion for film (and each other of course).

If you have a comment, question, or suggestion, you can send a message to Jon Schuller by clicking here.

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