Jeremiah Dollins’s review published on Letterboxd:
What makes Luc Besson's LEON: THE PROFESSIONAL work is the unique and ambiguous chemistry in the relationship between Leon (Jean Reno) and the pre-teen, Mathilda (Natalie Portman). The movie's action is exciting and grisly, but its power is rooted firmly in our empathy for these two characters. Of course they are sociopathic, and there is the oddity of their love story, but by the movie's end we are fully invested in their pursuit of happiness.
Leon is a professional hitman who works for Tony (Danny Aiello), a local crime boss. He is compelled to save the life of Mathilda when her family is gunned down by a group of compromised DEA agents, led by the insane, drug addled Stansfield (Gary Oldman). Excited by Leon's line of work and yearning to avenge the death of her 4-year old brother, Mathilda asks Leon to teach her how to be a hitman, too. Eventually, the two become attached, but find their lives in jeopardy as Stansfield learns of them.
This film was Natalie Portman's first, and her work as Mathilda not only hints at the great performances ahead of her, but showed that she was already quite gifted. Mathilda is the spark that gets this movie going. She's a foul-mouthed, cigarette smoking, impulsive, yet romantic pre-teen. In an interview for the 10th anniversary DVD for the film, the casting director revealed that Besson wanted a girl for the role that thought she knew about sex, but actually knew nothing. This perfectly describes the quality of Portman's performance, which she honed into her personal brand, and perfected in Aronofsky's BLACK SWAN. No matter how odd the relationship is between Mathilda and Leon, it never feels creepy because of the Portman's world weary innocence. In fact, she makes us love Leon all the more, making his choices in the film's last act feel even more epic.
Gary Oldman is also marvelous here, Stanfield being one of his best characters. He has a ruthless, malevolent energy, yet never overplays it into the realm of camp. When he is on screen, you can't take your eyes on him, especially during the scene in which he corners a vengeance seeking Mathilda in a men's room.
Few action movies are able to do what LEON: THE PROFESSIONAL does. It gives us the testosterone fix, but also provides us with a deeply satisfying story of two lost souls who find each other in this horribly troubled world.