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‘The Professional’ (R)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 18, 1994

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In the business, Leon is what is known as a cleaner. If the rival mobster trying to elbow his way into your territory won't listen to reason, Leon's the guy you call to make sure he has a change of heart. Leon doesn't negotiate; he barely even speaks, and when he does the words emerge in a melancholy basso profundo dredged up from the depths of the blackest cave.

What Leon does is kill people -- cleanly, efficiently and without the slightest trace of remorse. From all appearances, there is nothing else in his life. No friends, no hobbies, no distractions. Just the four walls of his squalid walk-up and the grim, blue-collar drudgery of death.

For Luc Besson, the flamboyant director of "La Femme Nikita" and now "The Professional," Leon (Jean Reno) is a poetic brute, a man without humanity who has lived so close to darkness for so long that he has lost all connection to the light. The universe around him, too, is a symbolic construction, an interweaving of opera, film noir and existentialism, where the larger-than-life forces of innocence and corruption explode in blood and violence.

"The Professional" is also one pretty awesome action movie. Set in the inflamed lower depths of New York City, this is the story of a doomed man redeemed by his love for a lost girl. The child, played with a genuine sense of tragedy by newcomer Natalie Portman, is a damaged creature whose family is gunned down by a crooked cop named Stansfield (Gary Oldman). Not that she's shedding any tears, mind you. If the crooks hadn't killed them, she probably would have. When she discovers what Leon does for a living, she is anything but shocked. She decides she wants to be a cleaner too, and asks Leon to show her the tricks of the trade.

Predictably, while Leon teaches his apprentice the fine art of murder, she helps him recover his desire to live. And if it weren't for the laconic spareness of Reno's performance, the relationship between this twisted father-daughter team might be intolerably sentimental.

Reno plays it minimally; Oldman splatters his performance all over the screen. Oldman is the least inhibited actor of his generation, and as this deranged detective, he keeps absolutely nothing in reserve. When the camera gets close to him, you feel as if you want to back away. Not only is he lethal, he's ... unclean. Stansfield's signature is his passion for music. He thinks of everything, even his blood orgies, in terms of rhythm and color. You want Beethoven? he asks, picking up a shotgun. I'll play you some Beethoven.

Fortunately, Besson structures his film in much the same way. Not only does music play an important role in giving texture to his material, his scenes -- especially the violent ones -- are presented as arias, chamber pieces, symphonies. Even though its hero is a killer, "The Professional" pays tribute to the simple nobility of his craftsmanship. It's an evil job that he does, but at least he has standards.

"The Professional" is rated R for violence, language and drug use.

Copyright The Washington Post

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