As if fortysomethings need any further memento mori that they’ll become dust sooner than they think, Natalie Portman joined their ranks earlier this month. Indeed, it has been more than a quarter-century since Portman’s on-screen debut. And what a stunning journey it’s been from ingenue to in-demand — from Jane Foster to Jackie Kennedy, Star Wars to stoner comedies, Malick to Mr. Magorium, precise impersonations of Madonna to piercing interrogations of the Madonna-whore complex, Beautiful Girls to Black Swan. It seems easy now, with years of hindsight, to feel like Portman’s stardom was never in doubt. But no talent like her should be taken for granted. If you believe her legendary Lonely Island-assisted freestyle, she could even kill your dog for fun, so don’t push her. What you want, Natalie? A career of might. What you need, Natalie? To always find new heights. This is Natalie’s Rap.
What does one say about Luc Besson’s The Professional? Over the last 27 years, the film has built quite an infamous reputation with some viewers, especially once they learn Besson has a checkered past with an underaged woman or that quite a few problematic elements in the original script were ultimately cut, reworked or significantly dialed back — largely at the request of Natalie Portman’s parents. It’s easy to project an artist’s personal life or intentions onto a film, but The Professional deserves more, and so does Portman. So here’s my perspective on the American version of the film that kickstarted Portman’s career.
The opening scene, a long and masterful tracking shot through New York skies, offers a stirring reminder of a love for movies and their unique storytelling possibilities. That flight ends on the great French actor Jean Reno as León, a professional hitman working for a seasoned New York mafioso, Old Tony (Danny Aiello). We watch León work with Batman-esque fluidity in the opening sequence. It’s clear Leon has been “cleaning” for a long time, and Besson shoots the scene in a way that makes us believe León is the best at what he does — especially after León finds his desired prey, puts a blade to his throat and gets what he needs from him. Leon seems to float and fade into the shadows.
León is a secluded loner, spending his life drinking large glasses of milk and staring intently through the peephole in his front door, always ready for a threat to dare cross his path. If not for his best friend — a houseplant he obsessively cares for — he would have no one. But then he meets his neighbor, 12-year-old Mathilda (Portman), who doesn’t fit in with her self-absorbed family. She sits around the apartment building smoking cigarettes, thinking about how glorious it would be to see her family get what’s coming to them (well, except for her 4-year-old brother at least). Enter psychotic DEA agent Norman Stansfield (Gary Oldman) who has a working relationship with Mathilda’s father (Michael Badalucco). Believing he’s been double-crossed, Stansfield murders Mathilda’s entire family while she’s out buying groceries. It’s another expertly staged sequence of carnage, ultra-violent and merciless in a way that illustrates the extent to which Stansfield will go to maintain his cutthroat reputation but also how laissez-faire his goons are in raining death. Mathilda’s return to the apartment with the groceries is a wonderfully intense scene too, showcasing Portman’s ability to cry at will. Without acknowledging the carnage she witnesses from the hall, Mathilda walks right past her own apartment door and nonchalantly goes straight to León’s door, hoping he will let her in. As she begs him quietly through the door, she begins to sob. The door opens. She enters. A connection is formed.
Besson’s prior and arguably better film, La Femme Nikita (1990), focuses on an untamed city girl who eventually becomes a professional assassin and then a civilized woman. In The Professional, we see a young girl tame a man once imagined untameable as she works toward becoming a killer herself. An interest in people transformed by someone or something is frequent and familiar territory for Besson. In this case, Mathilda is transformed by her trauma and desire for revenge, while León is transformed by Mathilda herself. León is an interesting character, played by Reno as a man with certain mental limitations. To some, it might feel like an attempt to avoid overly pedophilic tones as León and Mathilda’s relationship evolves. To me, there is never a moment where León seems romantically interested in Mathilda; rather, he sees her as a friend, likely due to a closer proximity of their mental age than their physical ones. But León also cares for Mathilda like a daughter. Meanwhile, Mathilda grows to love León after her trauma, and although she believes it’s romantic, the reality is that it reflects the platonic security, acceptance and kindness she never found with her parents. This is the bond of their relationship and why their exchange of “I love yous” at the end is so effective.
Let’s not forget the great Oldman, who delivers a delightful caricature of a performance as a man you love to hate (always a good start for a ’90s action-movie villain). Stansfield is crooked to his core. He abuses an unnamed drug that makes him more ruthless and psychotic … more villainous — contorting his body as he chews the mysterious capsules in a way that channels a transformation from Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde. His simultaneous viciousness and reserve give Stansfield that memorable charm. Oldman is a gift.
That said, Portman is still the focus here — not only for the sake of this column but because she outshines everyone else in the film. Really, she had to. Portman had a far bigger challenge to convey the depths of Mathilda’s grief, and her performance paid off here, earning most of its critical spotlight and indicating her proverbial “star power.” Her fearlessness as Mathilda went to places of human experience that make some people uncomfortable. But Portman owned it. The Professional may not be a great film, but it’s worth remembering and cherishing as a vehicle to further showcase Oldman’s range, put Reno on the map of American cinema, and birth a star in Portman.