"Lion" ("The Professional")

Uncut, Luc Besson's controversial thriller makes perfect sense -- and it has a softly beating heart.

By Charles Taylor
Published August 28, 2000 7:51PM (EDT)

"Lion" ("The Professional")
Directed by Luc Besson
Starring Jean Reno, Natalie Portman, Gary Oldman, Danny Aiello
Columbia/TriStar; widescreen (2:35.1 aspect ratio)
Extras: American theatrical trailer, director and actor credits, selection of film's international posters, isolated music score

Luc Besson's 1994 "Lion," released in the United States as "The Professional" and shorn of 24 minutes that made Columbia Pictures nervous, has been restored to its full 133-minute running time in this new DVD. The extras -- including an international gallery of the film's posters -- are routine, but that's OK. The uncut version of the movie (previously available only on Japanese laserdisc) is the extra here. It's overblown and garishly violent, flaunting its amorality even as it wallows in sentimentality. And boy, is it fun. Lumbering, sleepy-eyed Lion (Jean Reno) is a French hit man who's taken up residence in New York performing his duties for a small-time mafioso (Danny Aiello). When corrupt DEA agents (headed by Gary Oldman, over the top even by his typically moon-shot standards) rub out the family in the apartment down the hall from Lion's, he's left with the job of caring for the only survivor, a foul-mouthed 12-year-old punkette named Mathilda (Natalie Portman in her screen debut). Determined to get the thugs who killed her family, Mathilda persuades Lion to school her in his trade.

"Lion" is indebted to two foreign filmmakers obsessed with American genre films: Jean-Pierre Melville and Sergio Leone. Like the protagonists of Melville's "Le Doulos" and "Le Samourai," Lion is the hit man as existential outsider, a big mushy pile of loneliness beneath his stoic exterior. His only friend is the plant on which he lavishes attention (like the bird Alain Delon cared for in "Le Samourai"). The only time he cracks a smile is while he's sitting alone in the movies watching Gene Kelly in "It's Always Fair Weather." And though Besson is a piker next to Leone and his grandiose pulp poetry, the interiors here are as immense as those in Leone's "Once Upon a Time in America." Hallways, New York apartments, corner delis, even men's rooms stretch out for what seems like miles.

The irony of this celebration of American bigness is that it should run into a prime example of American small-mindedness. The cuts made by Columbia struck right at the heart of the movie: the relationship between Lion and Mathilda. What is it that gave the studio the jitters? Well, for one thing, the scenes where young Mathilda accompanies Lion on hits, playing the part of scared little girl to gain access to his targets' apartments. On one job, he even lets her practice on a dope dealer with a gun that shoots paint pellets, critiquing the accuracy of her aim before dropping the guy himself with two quick bullets. Besson stages the scene as deadpan comedy.

Yes, it's the moral corruption of a minor, but it's also extremely funny. We're in a topsy-turvy world where a dedicated hit man is both father figure and moral instructor. Of course, Besson could have offered a moral perspective beyond Lion's, but his most audacious move is that he doesn't. For all his widescreen bullet-ballet bravura, Besson's focus is stripped down to these two characters. It's as if he set out to move Charlie Chaplin's "The Kid," also the story of a lonely man who finds love by caring for an orphan, into perverse, bloody terrain and then really threw a curve by making his story as sentimental as Chaplin's.

Besson is too calculated a filmmaker to approach the old-movie naiveti that defined John Woo's Hong Kong movies. But his mixture of thrills and tear-jerking does return you to something elemental about the appeal of movies. Take away Besson's showoffy technique and you've got a story that wouldn't have been out of place in a silent nickelodeon.

It works because of the charm of its stars. Reno knows how to project vulnerability beneath his bearded, sunken-eyed demeanor. He's a charismatic lug. And Portman is such a clean, intuitive actress that you feel no embarrassment in responding to Mathilda and Lion's most desperate clinches any more than you do when Jackie Coogan cries out for Chaplin.

The studio must also have been made skittish by Mathilda's confessing to Lion that she's in love with him and begging him to be her first. What's ironic is that the sequence the editors left in -- a shot of Mathilda rising from a bed she's shared with the fully clothed Lion -- makes the relationship seem much more sordid than it would have had they retained the rather tender scene where he turns down her proposition. It's crucial to their relationship that Lion doesn't refuse Mathilda simply by saying that she's too young. Though that reasoning is implicit, it would also have the effect of his treating her like a kid. Instead, Lion pays her the respect of explaining his own heartache. His final declaration of love ("You've given me a taste for life") is the real deal. In its own strange way, "Lion" reminds you of the impure force of movies. It chokes you up even as you see it's as manipulative as movies come.

Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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