Léon: The Professional

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Léon: The Professional
French theatrical release poster
Directed by Luc Besson
Produced by Patrice Ledoux
Written by Luc Besson
Music by Éric Serra
Cinematography Thierry Arbogast
Edited by Sylvie Landra
Distributed by
Release dates
  • 14 September 1994 (1994-09-14) (France)
  • 18 November 1994 (1994-11-18) (USA)
Running time
110 minutes
Country France
Language English
Budget $16 million[1]
Box office $45,284,974[1][2]

Léon: The Professional (French: Léon; also known as The Professional) is a 1994 English-language French thriller film written and directed by Luc Besson. The film stars Jean Reno as the titular mob hitman; Gary Oldman as corrupt and unhinged DEA agent Norman Stansfield; a young Natalie Portman, in her feature film debut, as Mathilda, a 12-year-old girl who is reluctantly taken in by Léon after her family is murdered; and Danny Aiello as Tony, the mobster who gives the hitman his assignments. Léon and Mathilda form an unusual relationship, as she becomes his protégée and learns the hitman's trade. The film was a commercial success, grossing over $45 million worldwide[1][2] on a $16 million budget.[1]


Leone "Léon" Montana (Jean Reno) is a hitman (or "cleaner", as he refers to himself) living a solitary life in New York City's Little Italy. His work comes from a mafioso named Tony (Danny Aiello), who operates from the "Supreme Macaroni Company" restaurant. Léon spends his idle time engaging in calisthenics, nurturing a houseplant that early on he describes as his "best friend",[3] and (in one scene) watching old Gene Kelly musicals. As the film opens, Leon efficiently and methodically takes out a drug kingpin's security detail, one by one, until only the boss is left alive; the killings served as a warning for him to stay out of NYC.

One day, Léon sees Mathilda Lando (Natalie Portman), a twelve-year-old girl who is smoking a cigarette and sporting a black eye. Mathilda lives with her dysfunctional family in an apartment down the hall. Her abusive father and self-absorbed stepmother have not noticed that Mathilda stopped attending class at her school for troubled girls. Mathilda's father (Michael Badalucco) attracts the ire of corrupt DEA agents, who have been paying him to stash cocaine in his apartment. After they discover he has been cutting the cocaine to keep some for himself, DEA agents storm the building, led by sharply-dressed drug addict Norman Stansfield (Gary Oldman).

During the raid, Stansfield quickly becomes unhinged and murders Mathilda's entire family one by one, except for Mathilda, who was missing only because she was out shopping. Mathilda returns from her shopping trip as the group cleans up the carnage, and realizes what happened just in time to continue down the hall, where she desperately knocks on her neighbour's door. A reluctant Léon gives her shelter.

Mathilda quickly discovers that Léon is a "cleaner", or hitman. She begs him to take care of her and to teach her his skills as a cleaner. She wants to avenge the murder of her four-year-old brother, telling Léon that he was the only one of her family she loved. Léon shows her how to use guns, including a scoped rifle. In return, she runs his errands, cleans his apartment, and teaches him how to read. Several times Mathilda tells Léon "I love you", but he offers no response.

Gary Oldman as Norman Stansfield

Then one day after Mathilda has learned how to shoot, she fills a bag with guns from Léon's collection and sets out to kill Stansfield. She bluffs her way into the DEA office by posing as a delivery girl, only to be ambushed by Stansfield in a bathroom. Mathilda learns from Stansfield and one of his men that Léon has killed one of the corrupt DEA agents in Chinatown that morning. Léon, after discovering her plan in a note left for him, rescues Mathilda, shooting two more of Stansfield's men in the process.

Stansfield, now enraged that Léon has killed more of his men, goes to find Tony, then beats him to find out where Léon is.

When Mathilda returns home from grocery shopping, a black-ski-masked New York City Police Department Emergency Service Unit sent by Stansfield takes her hostage and attempts to infiltrate Léon's apartment. Léon ambushes the ESU team and grabs Mathilda. Back in his apartment, Léon creates a quick escape for Mathilda by smashing a hole in an air shaft. He reassures her and tells her that he loves her and that she has given him "a taste for life", moments before the police come for him. In the chaos that follows, Léon sneaks out of the apartment building disguised as a wounded ESU officer. He goes unnoticed save for Stansfield, who recognizes him and follows him downstairs, sneaks up behind him, and shoots him in the back. As Léon falls, he places an object in Stansfield's hands that he says is "from Mathilda", and dies. Opening his hands to see the object, Stansfield discovers that it is the pin from a grenade. He then opens Léon's vest to find a cluster of active grenades, which detonate moments later, the huge explosion killing him instantly.

Mathilda heads to Tony's place as Léon had instructed her before he died. Tony reveals to Mathilda that Léon instructed him to give his money to her if anything happened to him. He offers to hold the money and provide it to her on an allowance basis, on account of her youth. Mathilda asks Tony to give her a job, insisting that she can "clean" like Léon. Tony angrily shouts he "ain't got no work for a 12-year-old kid." He tells Mathilda she should "forget all this craziness" and return to school. Mathilda meets with the headmistress, who readmits her but insists she stop telling lies. Mathilda confesses the true reason for her absence. Mathilda then walks into a field near the school with Léon's houseplant in hand. She digs a hole and plants it, as she had told Léon he should, to give it roots.



Léon & Mathilda's apartment building on the northwest corner of E 97th St & Park Ave (February 2005)

Léon: The Professional is to some extent an expansion of an idea in Besson's earlier 1990 film, La Femme Nikita (in some countries Nikita). In La Femme Nikita Jean Reno plays a similar character named Victor. Besson described Léon as "Now maybe Jean is playing the American cousin of Victor. This time he's more human."[6]

While most of the interior footage was shot in France, the rest of the film was shot on location in New York. The final scene at the school was filmed at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey.[7]


A soundtrack for the film was released in October 1994. It was commercially successful in Japan, being certified gold for 100,000 copies shipped in December 1999.[8]

Reception [edit]

Critical response[edit]

Léon: The Professional received favorable reviews from critics. The film holds a "Certified Fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with an aggregate rating of 72% based on 57 critical reviews. The site's consensus states, "Pivoting on the unusual relationship between seasoned hitman and his 12-year-old apprentice — a breakout turn by young Natalie Portman — Luc Besson's Léon is a stylish and oddly affecting thriller".[9] At Metacritic, the film received an average score of 64 based on 12 reviews, indicating "Generally favorable reviews".[10]

Mark Salisbury of Empire magazine awarded the film a full five stars. He said, "Oozing style, wit and confidence from every sprocket, and offering a dizzyingly, fresh perspective on the Big Apple that only Besson could bring, this is, in a word, wonderful".[11] Mark Deming at AllMovie awarded the film four stars out of five, describing it as "As visually stylish as it is graphically violent", and featuring "a strong performance from Jean Reno, a striking debut by Natalie Portman, and a love-it-or-hate-it, over-the-top turn by Gary Oldman".[12] Richard Schickel of Time magazine lauded the film, writing, "this is a Cuisinart of a movie, mixing familiar yet disparate ingredients, making something odd, possibly distasteful, undeniably arresting out of them". He praised Oldman's performance as "divinely psychotic".[13]

Roger Ebert awarded the film two-and-a-half stars out of four, writing: "It is a well-directed film, because Besson has a natural gift for plunging into drama with a charged-up visual style. And it is well acted." However, he was not entirely complimentary: "Always at the back of my mind was the troubled thought that there was something wrong about placing a 12-year-old character in the middle of this action." "In what is essentially an exercise—a slick urban thriller—it seems to exploit the youth of the girl without really dealing with it."[14] The New York Times' Janet Maslin wrote, "The Professional is much too sentimental to sound shockingly amoral in the least. Even in a finale of extravagant violence, it manages to be maudlin ... Mr. Oldman expresses most of the film's sadism as well as many of its misguidedly poetic sentiments."[3]

Box office[edit]

Léon: The Professional was a commercial success, grossing over $45 million worldwide[1][2] on a $16 million budget.[1]


Léon: The Professional won the Czech Lion for Best Foreign Language Film and the Golden Reel Award for Best Sound Editing - Foreign Feature. The film was also nominated for seven César Awards in 1995, namely Best Film, Best Actor (Jean Reno), Best Director, Best Music, Best Cinematography, Best Editing and Best Sound.[15]


The character Norman Stansfield has since been named by several publications as one of cinema's greatest villains.[16]

The Bollywood movie Bichhoo was inspired by Léon: The Professional.

In 2014, Time Out polled several film critics, directors, actors and stunt actors to list their top action films.[17] Léon: The Professional was listed at 42nd place on this list.[18]

The British band Alt-J released a song about the movie, titled 'Matilda' [sic]. The first line in the lyrics, "this is from Matilda", refer to Leon's last words to Norman Stansfield, shortly before the grenades detonate and take their lives.[19]


It has been claimed that Besson has written the script for a sequel, which Transporter 3 director Olivier Megaton was to direct and in which Portman would reprise the Mathilda role. Filming was to be delayed until Portman was a bit older. However, in the meantime, Besson left Gaumont Film Company to start his own movie studio, EuropaCorp. Unhappy at Besson's departure, Gaumont Film Company "has held The Professional rights close to the vest — and will not budge". According to Megaton, the sequel will more than likely never happen.[20][21]

Extended version[edit]

There is also an extended version of the film, referred to as "international version," "version longue," or "version intégrale". Containing 25 minutes of additional footage, it is sometimes called the "Director's Cut" but Besson refers to the original version as the Director's Cut and the new version as "The Long Version".[22] According to Luc Besson, this is the version he wanted to release, but for the fact that the extra scenes tested poorly with Los Angeles preview audiences. The additional material is found in the film's second act, and it depicts more of the interactions and relationship between Léon and Mathilda, as well as explicitly demonstrating how Mathilda accompanies Léon on several of his hits as "a full co-conspirator", to further her training as a contract killer.[23]

Léon: Version Intégrale was released in France in 1996; in the United States, where the film was originally released as The Professional, it was released on DVD as Léon: The Professional in 2000. Both versions contain the additional footage.[24]


  1. ^ a b c d e f "Léon". the-numbers.com. Retrieved 4 April 2010. 
  2. ^ a b c "The Professional". Retrieved 4 April 2010. 
  3. ^ a b Janet Maslin (18 November 1994) He May Be a Killer, But He's Such a Sweetie, a review by The New York Times
  4. ^ Maïwenn LE BESCO. Lesgensducinema.com (24 December 2004). Retrieved on 28 May 2013.
  5. ^ Biographie de Maiwenn. Musicme.com. Retrieved on 28 May 2013.
  6. ^ Besson, Luc. Léon: The Professional Uncut International Version DVD, inside sleeve.
  7. ^ "Leon – The Professional filming locations". The Worldwide Guide To Movie Locations. 18 June 2008. 
  8. ^ "GOLD ALBUM 他認定作品 1999年12月度" [Gold Albums, and other certified works. December 1999 Edition] (PDF). The Record (Bulletin) (in Japanese) (Chūō, Tokyo: Recording Industry Association of Japan) 483: 8. February 10, 2000. Archived from the original on January 17, 2014. Retrieved January 17, 2014. 
  9. ^ Léon: The Professional at Rotten Tomatoes. Flixster Retrieved on 28 October 2014.
  10. ^ The Professional at Metacritic. Retrieved on 21 August 2014.
  11. ^ Mark Salisbury. Reviews: Leon. Empire. Retrieved 22 December 2011.
  12. ^ Mark Deming. "The Professional review". AllMovie. Retrieved 9 June 2010. 
  13. ^ Richard Schickel (24 June 2001). "Slice and Dice". Time. 
  14. ^ Roger Ebert (18 November 1994) The Professional. review in rogerebert.suntimes.com
  15. ^ Awards for Léon. Internet Movie Database. Retrieved 4 October 2011.
  16. ^ See Creation and legacy of Norman Stansfield.
  17. ^ "The 100 best action movies". Time Out. Retrieved November 7, 2014. 
  18. ^ "The 100 best action movies: 50-41". Time Out. November 3, 2014. Retrieved November 7, 2014. 
  19. ^ http://www.mtvhive.com/2012/09/12/alt-j-facts/
  20. ^ "Exclusive: Olivier Megaton Says Sequel to ‘The Professional’ Unlikely". Screen Rant. 19 August 2010. 
  21. ^ "Natalie Portman Wants 'Professional' Sequel, But Only if Luc Besson Directs". Movie Fone. 7 September 2010. 
  22. ^ "Besson on: His promise to make only 10 films, Working with Natalie Portman, Jacques Mayol, directing". Guardian/BFI interviews (London). 23 March 2000. 
  23. ^ Lisa Nesselson (29 July 1996). "Leon: Version Integrale – The Professional (Director's Cut)". Variety. 
  24. ^ "Professional (1994)". Movies.amctv.com. 16 April 2010. Retrieved 30 April 2010. 

External links[edit]