Léon: The Professional

Léon: The Professional

Picture of Jean Reno as Leon. He is bearded and wearing sunglasses looking upwards

French theatrical release poster
Directed by Luc Besson
Produced by Patrice Ledoux
Written by Luc Besson
Music by Éric Serra
Cinematography Thierry Arbogast
Edited by Sylvie Landra
Distributed by
  • Gaumont
    Buena Vista International
Release dates
  • 14 September 1994 (1994-09-14)
Running time

133 minutes (original)

110 minutes (U.S. version)
Country France
Language English
Budget $16 million[1]
Box office $46.1 million[2]

Léon: The Professional (French: Léon; also known as The Professional) is a 1994 English-language French thriller film[3] written and directed by Luc Besson. It stars Jean Reno and Gary Oldman, and features the motion picture debut of Natalie Portman. In the film Leon (Reno), a professional hitman, reluctantly takes in 12-year-old Mathilda (Portman), after her family is murdered by corrupt Drug Enforcement Administration agent Norman Stansfield (Oldman). Léon and Mathilda form an unusual relationship, as she becomes his protégée and learns the hitman's trade.

Léon: The Professional was a commercial success, grossing over $45 million worldwide on a $16 million budget.[1]


Léon Montana (Jean Reno) is an Italian hitman (or "cleaner", as he refers to himself) living a solitary life in New York City's Little Italy. His work comes from a mafioso named Tony (Danny Aiello). Léon spends his idle time engaging in calisthenics, nurturing a houseplant, and watching old films.

One day, Léon sees Mathilda Lando (Natalie Portman), a twelve-year-old girl who is smoking a cigarette and sporting a black eye. Mathilda lives with her dysfunctional family in an apartment down the hall. Her abusive father and self-absorbed stepmother have not noticed that Mathilda stopped attending class at her school for troubled girls. Mathilda's father (Michael Badalucco) attracts the ire of corrupt DEA agents, who have been paying him to stash cocaine in his apartment. After they discover he has been cutting the cocaine to keep some for himself, DEA agents storm the building, led by sharply dressed drug addict Norman Stansfield (Gary Oldman). During the raid, Stansfield quickly becomes unhinged and murders Mathilda's entire family one by one while Mathilda is out shopping for groceries. When Mathilda returns, she realizes what has happened just in time to continue down the hall, where she desperately knocks on her neighbour's door. A hesitant Léon gives her shelter.

Mathilda quickly discovers that Léon is a hitman. She begs him to take care of her and to teach her his skills, as she wants to avenge the murder of her four-year-old brother. At first, Léon is unsettled by her presence. He even almost kills her in her sleep, possibly out of mercy, but can't bring himself to do it. The next morning, Léon tries to throw Mathilda out, but she claims that, because he saved her life the previous day, he is now responsible for her, stating that she would be dead by the end of the day if he threw her out and it would be like he had never opened the door for her. She begs him to train her as a "cleaner," demonstrating her willingness to learn by taking Léon's gun and firing randomly onto the street outside his open window. Reluctantly, Léon trains Mathilda and shows her how to use various weapons. In return, she runs his errands, cleans his apartment, and teaches him how to read. Mathilda tells Léon she loves him several times, but he offers no response.

One day after Mathilda has learned how to shoot, she fills a bag with guns from Léon's collection and sets out to kill Stansfield. She bluffs her way into the DEA office by posing as a delivery girl, only to be ambushed by Stansfield in a bathroom. Mathilda learns from Stansfield that Léon killed one of the corrupt DEA agents in Chinatown that morning. Léon, after discovering her plan in a note left for him, rescues Mathilda, shooting two more of Stansfield's men in the process. A now enraged Stansfield goes to find Tony, and assaults him in order to find out where Léon is.

When Mathilda returns home from grocery shopping, an NYPD ESU team sent by Stansfield captures her and attempts to infiltrate Léon's apartment. Léon ambushes the ESU team and grabs Mathilda. Back in his apartment, Léon creates a quick escape for Mathilda by smashing a hole in an air shaft. He reassures her and tells her that he loves her and that she has given him "a taste for life", moments before the police come for him. In the chaos that follows, Léon sneaks out of the building disguised as a wounded ESU officer. He goes unnoticed save for Stansfield, who recognizes him, follows him downstairs and shoots him in the back. As he is dying, Léon places an object in Stansfield's hands that he says is "from Mathilda". Opening his hands, Stansfield discovers that it is the pin from a grenade. He then opens Léon's vest to find a cluster of active grenades, which detonate moments later, killing them both.

Mathilda heads to see Tony, as Léon had instructed her to do before he died. Tony reveals to Mathilda that Léon instructed him to give his money to her if anything happened to him. He offers to hold the money and provide it to her on an allowance basis, on account of her youth. When Mathilda asks Tony to give her a job as a hitman; Tony angrily and adamantly refuses to hire a twelve-year-old girl, telling Mathilda to forget about her ordeal and return to school. Mathilda meets with the school headmistress, who readmits her after Mathilda tells her what had happened in the past several days and if the headmistress doesn't help her now, Mathilda would be dead by the end of the day. She then walks into a field near the school to plant Léon's houseplant, as she had told Léon he should, to give it roots.



Léon & Mathilda's apartment building on the northwest corner of E 97th St & Park Ave, pictured in 2003

Léon: The Professional is to some extent an expansion of an idea in Besson's earlier 1990 film, La Femme Nikita (in some countries Nikita). In La Femme Nikita Jean Reno plays a similar character named Victor. Besson described Léon as "Now maybe Jean is playing the American cousin of Victor. This time he's more human."[4]

While most of the interior footage was shot in France, the rest of the film was shot on location in New York. The final scene at the school was filmed at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey.[5]


A soundtrack for the film was released in October 1994. It was commercially successful in Japan, being certified gold for 100,000 copies shipped in December 1999.[6]


Critical response

Léon: The Professional received favorable reviews from critics. The film holds a "Certified Fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with an aggregate rating of 71% based on 59 critical reviews. The site's consensus states, "Pivoting on the unusual relationship between seasoned hitman and his 12-year-old apprentice—a breakout turn by young Natalie Portman—Luc Besson's Léon is a stylish and oddly affecting thriller".[7] At Metacritic, the film received an average score of 64 based on 12 reviews, indicating "Generally favorable reviews".[8]

Mark Salisbury of Empire magazine awarded the film a full five stars. He said, "Oozing style, wit and confidence from every sprocket, and offering a dizzyingly, fresh perspective on the Big Apple that only Besson could bring, this is, in a word, wonderful".[9] Mark Deming at AllMovie awarded the film four stars out of five, describing it as "As visually stylish as it is graphically violent", and featuring "a strong performance from Jean Reno, a striking debut by Natalie Portman, and a love-it-or-hate-it, over-the-top turn by Gary Oldman".[10] Richard Schickel of Time magazine lauded the film, writing, "this is a Cuisinart of a movie, mixing familiar yet disparate ingredients, making something odd, possibly distasteful, undeniably arresting out of them". He praised Oldman's performance as "divinely psychotic".[11]

Roger Ebert awarded the film two-and-a-half stars out of four, writing: "It is a well-directed film, because Besson has a natural gift for plunging into drama with a charged-up visual style. And it is well acted." However, he was not entirely complimentary: "Always at the back of my mind was the troubled thought that there was something wrong about placing a 12-year-old character in the middle of this action. ... In what is essentially an exercise—a slick urban thriller—it seems to exploit the youth of the girl without really dealing with it."[12] The New York Times' Janet Maslin wrote, "The Professional is much too sentimental to sound shockingly amoral in the least. Even in a finale of extravagant violence, it manages to be maudlin … Mr. Oldman expresses most of the film's sadism as well as many of its misguidedly poetic sentiments."[13]

Box office

Léon: The Professional was a commercial success, grossing over $45 million worldwide on a $16 million budget.[1]


Léon: The Professional won the Czech Lion Award for Best Foreign Language Film and the Golden Reel Award for Best Sound Editing – Foreign Feature. The film was also nominated for seven César Awards in 1995, namely Best Film, Best Actor (Jean Reno), Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Music, and Best Sound.[14]


In the 2013 book, Poseur: A Memoir of Downtown New York City in the '90s, Marc Spitz describes the film as a "cult classic".[15] In 2014, Time Out polled several film critics, directors, actors and stunt actors to list their top action films; Léon: The Professional was listed at No. 42.[16] The character Norman Stansfield has since been named by several publications as one of cinema's greatest villains.

The British band Alt-J released a song about the film, titled 'Matilda' [sic]. The first line in the lyrics, "this is from Matilda", refer to Leon's last words to Norman Stansfield, shortly before the grenades detonate and take their lives.[17] The Bollywood film Bichhoo was inspired by Léon: The Professional.

In 2014, Somali-British director Mo Ali made his second directorial feature Montana, a British action film. The film was inspired by both Leon and The Karate Kid.[18]

South Korean comedian Park Myeong-su and singer-songwriter IU released and performed a song inspired by the film, "Leon", for a bi-annual music festival of South Korea's highly popular variety show, Infinite Challenge, in 2015.[19]


It has been claimed that Besson has written the script for a sequel, which director Olivier Megaton was to direct and in which Portman would reprise the Mathilda role. Filming was to be delayed until Portman was a bit older. However, in the meantime, Besson left Gaumont Film Company to start his own movie studio, EuropaCorp. Unhappy at Besson's departure, Gaumont Film Company "has held The Professional rights close to the vest — and will not budge". According to Megaton, the sequel will more than likely never happen.[20][21]

Extended version

There is also an extended version of the film, referred to as "international version," "version longue," or "version intégrale". Containing 25 minutes of additional footage, it is sometimes called the "Director's Cut" but Besson refers to the original version as the Director's Cut and the new version as "The Long Version".[22] According to Luc Besson, this is the version he wanted to release, but for the fact that the extra scenes tested poorly with Los Angeles preview audiences. The additional material is found in the film's second act, and it depicts more of the interactions and relationship between Léon and Mathilda, as well as explicitly demonstrating how Mathilda accompanies Léon on several of his hits as "a full co-conspirator", to further her training as a contracted killer.[23]

Léon: Version Intégrale was released in France in 1996; in the United States, where the film was originally released as The Professional, it was released on DVD as Léon: The Professional in 2000. Both versions contain the additional footage.[24]


  1. 1 2 3 "Box Office Information for Léon". The Numbers. Retrieved 4 April 2010.
  2. JP. "Léon (The Professional) (1994)". JPBox-Office. Retrieved 25 November 2016.
  3. Ebert, Roger. "The Professional Movie Review (1994)". rogerebert.com. Retrieved 12 October 2016.
  4. Luc Besson. Léon: The Professional Uncut International Version DVD, inside sleeve.
  5. "Leon – The Professional filming locations". The Worldwide Guide To Movie Locations. 18 June 2008.
  6. "GOLD ALBUM 他認定作品 1999年12月度" [Gold Albums, and other certified works. December 1999 Edition] (PDF). The Record (Bulletin) (in Japanese). Chūō, Tokyo: Recording Industry Association of Japan. 483: 8. 10 February 2000. Archived from the original (PDF) on 17 January 2014. Retrieved 17 January 2014.
  7. Léon: The Professional at Rotten Tomatoes. Flixster. Retrieved 28 October 2014
  8. The Professional at Metacritic. Retrieved 21 August 2014
  9. Mark Salisbury. Reviews: Leon. Empire. Retrieved 22 December 2011.
  10. Mark Deming. "The Professional review". AllMovie. Retrieved 9 June 2010.
  11. Richard Schickel (24 June 2001). "Slice and Dice". Time.
  12. Roger Ebert (18 November 1994) The Professional. review in rogerebert.suntimes.com
  13. Janet Maslin (18 November 1994) He May Be a Killer, But He's Such a Sweetie, a review by The New York Times
  14. Awards for Léon. Internet Movie Database. Retrieved 4 October 2011.
  15. Marc Spitz (2013). Poseur: A Memoir of Downtown New York City in The '90s. Da Capo Press. ISBN 0-3068-2174-5. The film, a campy, stylish, ultraviolent tale about a solitary hit man (Jean Reno) and the little girl he grows to love, is called The Professional in America, Léon everywhere else. Natalie Portman was the girl, Matilda. It's now considered a cult classic.
  16. "The 100 best action movies: 50–41". Time Out. 3 November 2014. Retrieved 7 November 2014.
  17. "Five Things to Know About Alt-J". MTV. 12 September 2012. Retrieved 28 February 2015.
  18. "'Montana' From British Director Mo Ali Officially Kicks Off Shooting In London".
  19. "'Infinity Challenge Music Festival' features performances by Taeyang, G-Dragon, IU, Zion.T and more!". allkpop.com. 22 August 2015. Retrieved 29 August 2015.
  20. "Exclusive: Olivier Megaton Says Sequel to 'The Professional' Unlikely". Screen Rant. 19 August 2010.
  21. "Natalie Portman Wants 'Professional' Sequel, But Only if Luc Besson Directs". Movie Fone. 7 September 2010.
  22. "Besson on: His promise to make only 10 films, Working with Natalie Portman, Jacques Mayol, directing". Guardian/BFI interviews. London. 23 March 2000.
  23. Lisa Nesselson (29 July 1996). "Leon: Version Integrale – The Professional (Director's Cut)". Variety.
  24. "Professional (1994)". Movies.amctv.com. 16 April 2010. Retrieved 30 April 2010.

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