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Movie Review : 'The Professional' Goes for Hollywood-Style Smarm

November 18, 1994|PETER RAINER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"The Professional" is being touted as the Hollywood debut of "La Femme Nikita" director Luc Besson, but, of course, "Nikita" was pure Hollywood in every way except the subtitles. It was more Hollywood than its Hollywood remake, "Point of No Return."

Besson has a gift for amoral sleaziness that should serve him well over here. In his very first American film, he has gone straight for the smarm.

Consider this: It's about Leon (Jean Reno), a hit man who befriends Mathilda (Natalie Portman), a 12-year-old who has lost her family in a drug-deal rub-out. Seeking vengeance, Mathilda cajoles Leon into teaching her the tricks of the trade.

Besson makes sure his hit man--"cleaner"--is sympathetic. Leon may look like Sylvester Stallone after being run through a duck press, he may wear sunglasses indoors, but he knows where to draw the line in his job: "No women, no children." He drinks milk, tends to his best friend--a houseplant--and can't read. (Illiteracy, per Forrest Gump, seems to be a point of sympathy in the movies these days.) He allows a chummy Mafia capo (Danny Aiello) to bank his earnings. He loves Gene Kelly movies. (Kelly should sue.)

This sub-verbal lunk is a blood brother to Lennie in "Of Mice and Men"--in other words, Besson defuses the relationship with Mathilda by making Leon essentially sexless. We're supposed to regard his live-in relationship with the girl as a platonic, father-daughter thing, although she's a lot more wised-up than he is.

Does Besson recognize that he shows off Mathilda as a tart little Lolita? The first shot of her in the movie is a slow tilt up her stockinged legs, and in a couple of sequences he dresses her like Jodie Foster in "Taxi Driver." She does vampy impressions of Marilyn Monroe and Madonna, singing "Like a Virgin." (Madonna should sue.) If the point of all this is to show how an abused child becomes precociously sexual in order to find love, the intention is coated with gunk.

Natalie Portman isn't enough of an actress to unfold Mathilda's pain, and, in any event, Besson doesn't seem very interested in it. The girl's family--including her 7-year-old brother--has been wasted, but she's not terribly put out by it. (Her father was a sleazeball with a live-in lover, and her sister was "only" a half-sister.) Her vengeance on the Drug Enforcement Administration kingpin (an over-the-top Gary Oldman) who provoked the killings seems motivated more by pique than rage.

"The Professional" reaches its nadir--and that's saying something--when Leon teaches Mathilda the fine points of picking somebody off with a long-range rifle. From a tenement roof she plugs a Donald Trump-looking jogger in New York's Central Park. The bullet, of course, turns out to be a red-fluid-filled blank. Besson plays the scene for laughs. Hardy-har-har.

"The Professional" works in a sub-zone of Hollywood amoralism where violence is intended as turn-on and neglected children are displayed as moppets and killers are sweetened by their attentiveness to houseplants. It's a vile little exercise.

* MPAA rating: R, for strong graphic violence and for language. Times guidelines: It includes a lot of implied smarminess involving a 12-year - old girl and much in-your-face violence. 'The Professional'

Jean Reno: Leon

Gary Oldman: Stansfield

Natalie Portman: Mathilda

Danny Aiello: Tony

A Columbia/Gaumont Buena Vista International release of a Gaumont/Les Films du Dauphin production. Directed and written Luc Besson. Executive producer Claude Besson. Cinematographer Thierry Arbogast. Editor Sylvie Landra. Costumes Magali Guidasci. Music Eric Serra. Production design Dan Weil. Set decorator Carolyn Cartwright. Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes.

* In general release throughout Southern California.

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