'Professional' film touching despite violence

By Doug Cummings

Arizona Daily Wildcat

If Hollywood had only waited, there would have been no need for "Point of No Return," the silly remake of Luc Besson's "La Femme Nikita." Besson's new American film, "The Professional," is similar enough to "Nikita" and exhibits all the postmodern gloss that made "Nikita" so popular.

The story takes place in New York City. Matilda (Natalie Portman) is an abused 12-year-old girl whose family is killed by Gary Stansfield (Gary Oldman) from complications ensuing from a drug deal. Matilda turns to her reluctant neighbor Leon (Jean Reno) for help. Leon turns out to be a French hit man for a Little Italy powerbroker played by Danny Aiello. Matilda asks Leon to train her so she can exact revenge on Stansfield.

"The Professional" draws drama from Leon's contradictory feelings about protecting Matilda by teaching her the only skills he knows vs. encouraging her to pursue an education and a better life.

The movie is an exciting and surprisingly touching post modern action extravaganza. Besson has become one of the most popular directors in France with his aggressive visual style and slick representation of techno-violence. But unlike the recent fare from Oliver Stone and Quentin Tarantino, Besson knows how to temper his violence with an emotional core. He is able to step back and place the carnage within a larger perspective. While the action scenes are kinetically hip, there is something sad about Leon's dependence on it for his livelihood.

Jean Reno ("The Big Blue") plays Leon with a world-weary charisma that is surprisingly childlike. There is a scene where he watches a Gene Kelley musical, and though he is the only person in the theater, the excitement on his face makes up for a raving crowd.

Gary Oldman ("True Romance") gives another standout performance as a volatile and unpredictable psychotic. He strides through the movie trembling with intensity.

Critics have noted a recurring theme of paternal control in French cinema, from Abel Gance's "La Roue" to recent examples like Rivette's "La Belle Noiseuse" and Besson's "Nikita." Such movies depict a man who attempts to control a younger woman by treating her like a child and teaching her a new way of life. "The Professional" follows the trend, though because Matilda is only 12 years old, Leon's protective tutelage is more palatable.

"The Professional" isn't as shocking or hard-hitting as "Nikita," but its thematic development and strong performances lift it above standard action fare. And when the bullets do start to fly, Besson's energetic camerawork is as exciting as it gets.

"The Professional" is showing at Catalina Cinemas, 881-0616.

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