The Professional, the English-language debut of acclaimed French thriller director Luc Besson, is an old chestnut with a shiny new high tech shell. It's about a hard-core assassin, Leon (French character actor Jean Reno, who played the robotically violent Cleaner in Besson's La Femme Nikita), who's redeemed by his urge to love and protect a 12-year-old girl named Matilda (Natalie Portman) whose family was murdered by crooked DEA agents in a drug-related squabble.
Of course, in action movies, as in musicals and Westerns, it's the telling that matters, not the tale. Accordingly, this picture strives to be a deliriously operatic action flick of the sort John Woo, James Cameron, Walter Hill and other masters of ultraviolence churn out routinely -- a popcorn picture with a dumb premise and familiar characters, but executed with such energy, emotion and stylistic panache that you suspend your disbelief.
And to be fair, when Besson is choreographing bullets, bodies, blood and flame, the movie is masterful. Shells rip through walls and windows like horizontal raindrops from hyperspace, and Leon, a moody loner with a lanky body, hound-dog eyes and an arsenal of killing techniques and weapons, avoids them so deftly that at times he seems less like a well-trained human than a shape-shifting wraith -- Rambo crossed with Freddy Krueger.
But in contrast to the films of John Woo, with whom Besson most blatantly and overconfidently begs comparison, the hyperrealistic violence and mayhem of The Professional isn't anchored by a moral code -- not even a Neanderthal one based on loyalty and survival. Because of clumsy storytelling or outright indifference, we're often unsure whether the DEA agents and police Leon kills are part of an evil gang led by the sadistic, popper-scarfing Stansfield (Gary Oldman), or simply random cops who were sucked into the crossfire by accident.
If the film were an out-and-out kinetic fantasy, like Woo's Hard Boiled or Hill's The Warriors, we might not care. But because Besson anchors the picture in something like reality, with grungy sets, ambient sound and genuinely harrowing emotional predicaments -- such as the mass-murder of Matilda's family, which is capped with a four-year-old's death by gunfire and might rank as the nastiest set piece since the home invasion in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer -- we need a moral compass to keep us from feeling confused and abused. The film's ethical vacuum seems less a philosophical statement than a byproduct of poor writing and filmmaking. It's as if Besson skimped on moral context not because he consciously rejected the need to provide it, but because he just didn't think about it.
This carelessness extends to the movie's central relationship between Leon and Matilda. It's fraught with perverse sexual tension that's all the more unsavory because Besson isn't interested in seriously exploring it. Leon is forever spitting out mouthfuls of milk (which he drinks because he's so childlike and pure -- get it?) whenever his young charge says something sexually precocious. And when he shows Matilda how to use rifles and pistols, the sequences are filmed with the queasy intimacy of a carnal deflowering. Matilda also tells a hotel clerk that Leon is her lover, and even entertains Leon by dressing up as Marilyn Monroe and singing, "Happy birthday, Mr. President." (She also deploys words such as "motherfucker" with the ease of Andrew Dice Clay. Isn't the cutesy, foul-mouthed moppet a gimmick that should have been retired by now?)
Incestuous feelings, even between a strictly symbolic father and daughter, are grave business. To use them, as Besson does, as a pretext for sniggering sight gags suggests a startlingly casual brand of depravity. The filmmaker doesn't help himself by parading Matilda around in a succession of tarty-looking duds, or by staging an agonizingly protracted encounter between Stansfield and the girl in the DEA office men's room that ends with Oldman whipping out his revolver and pressing it to Matilda's neck while suggestively rubbing her face. (The fussy, flamboyant, hopelessly slimy Oldman, whose recent performances suggest a syphilitic Mickey Rourke, is insufferable throughout, but he revels so eagerly in this particular scene that he lowers the film to a new level of repulsiveness. He barely even seems to be acting; it's as if we're watching a pedophile play himself.)
At the risk of sounding like a moral absolutist, I've always believed that there's no material, no matter how controversial, that can't be addressed in popular art. The trick is treating that material with sensitivity, intelligence and respect. If, as a filmmaker, you aren't mentally and morally prepared to do so, you should scrupulously avoid stepping into quagmires. That Besson would include so many depraved touches without considering their implications (which Quentin Tarantino does throughout Pulp Fiction and Martin Scorsese does in all of his movies) is what's truly disturbing about The Professional. Ultimately, it isn't the film that's offensive but the filmmaking. Tarting up a child actress, filling her mouth with obscenities, teaching her how to kill and placing her in sexual jeopardy to jack up a movie's excitement level is evidence not of creative boldness, but crudeness and desperation. I'm glad the movie didn't give Leon a kindly grandmother: the director might have sodomized her in the name of entertainment.
Directed by Luc Besson. With Jean Reno, Gary Oldman and Natalie Portman.
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.