Leon (Jean Reno) keeps to himself. His profession as a hitman is his life. He is, as the title suggests, a true professional. He slips into places unseen and leaves the same, with his target dead, unless instructed otherwise. The movie starts with Leon taking an assignment to kill a businessman in a heavily guarded penthouse. He efficiently gets through many guards using misdirection and many bullets. He and his guards scramble to collect their money and drugs and escape. Leon ends up alone with a knife to his target's throat. The target is spared only because the client is satisfied with a warning.
After the job, Leon stops at the corner store and heads home to his small walk up apartment. He notices Mathilde (Natalie Portman) smoking a cigarette in the hallway, which she hides, explaining when he questions her, that there are "too many rats" in the building, and she doesn't want to get in more trouble. Leon notices a bruise on her face which she claims was from falling off her bike. Leon lets it go, reluctant to probe deeper into others' business. He agrees not to tell her dad about the smoking.
DEA Agent Stansfield (Gary Oldman) also show up in the hallway moments later while Mathilde is still in the hall smoking. Stansfield listens to music via headphones as one of his men, Malky, questions Mathilde's father about the fact that, the 100% pure dope, they had paid him to store, is now only 90% pure. He claims that he doesn't know what happened to the drugs and doesn't even know how to cut them. The DEA guy warns him that Stansfield has a sixth sense for sniffing out lies, and gets angry when his music is interrupted, which is what will happen if he sticks to his story. He insists that he doesn't know, and Stansfield's man interrupts him to talk with Mathilde's father. Stansfield has an odd technique, sniffing him and concluding, "Of course he didn't. Do me a favor and find out who did, for tomorrow. Noon."
Mathilde's father yells when they're out of earshot, that they should find out for themselves. He then yells at Mathilde for smoking, smacking her in the face when she tells him she did her homework already. Leon sees this occur through his door. We see him taking off his coat, revealing all sorts of weaponry underneath. He seems content with simplicity, watering his plant, having a glass of milk alone at his table and sitting on his couch in the dark.
The next day, Mathilde squabbles with her older sister over the TV. Mathilde answers the phone, getting a call from Mathilde's school. She claims to be her own mother, and intercepts the call which was intended to reveal that Mathilde has been out of school for two weeks. Mathilde explains "She's dead" and hangs up. Leon passes their apartment on the way out to see a Gene Kelly movie, and pauses hearing the yelling. He returns to find Mathilde in the hall, bloody and badly beat up, wiping her bloody nose on her sleeve. He offers his handkerchief and she asks him
"Is life always this hard, or just when you're a kid?" He answers
"Always like this."
Eager to build more of a connection with the only person in the world who has shown her kindness, she tells him she's going shopping and reveals that she knows he always gets two quarts of milk at the store. She offers to get milk and he nods. She seems delighted to do this and and heads to the store, Leon enters his apartment just before noon. The hallway soon fills up with Stansfield's men, all carrying guns. Stansfield pauses in the hall to crack his neck, exclaiming:
"I like these calm little moments before the storm. It reminds me of Beethoven. Can you hear it? It's like when you put your head to the grass and you can hear the growin' and you can hear the insects. Do you like Beethoven? "
Malky and the rest of the crew know enough to humor him. They head into Mathilde's place to confront her father. Leon watches through his door as the hallway fills up. Stansfield opens the door by blasting with his shotgun. He rushes into the bathroom and shoots the wife in the tub, then the older sister. He then confronts Mathilde's father and tells him. "We said noon. It's one minute past. You don't like Beethoven."
Being a complete maniac, he assumes that Mathilde's dad likes Mozart and tells him that while he too likes Mozart, he's too light for this kind of work" Mathilde's dad doesn't say a word as Stansfield goes on and his men search the place. Mathilde's young toddler brother is hiding under the bed and when one of the DEA agents starts checking the mattress, Mathilde's dad fires a shotgun hidden near his hand. The little boy runs hoping to use the distraction to get away, but doesn't get far, and neither does Mathilde's dad. Stansfield keeps firing at the father's body after he's dead, because he ruined his suit. Leon watches them come out into the hallway, but they go back into the apartment when a neighbor complains. Mathilde walks right by her own apartment seeing what happened from the hall. She goes to Leon's door and pleads with him to open it, which he does reluctantly. They realize however that one of the kids is missing and find a picture which includes Mathilde. They take the drugs and leave.
Leon and Mathilde start getting acquainted. Mathilde reveals that she doesn't care about any of her family except her four year old brother. He determines that she has no other family and when she opens his briefcase, finding all kinds of guns, he tells her he's a "cleaner" or hitman. She asks him what it would cost to kill the people that killed her brother. He tells her $5,000.00 a head. She offers to work for him, if he'll teach her to "clean." She takes his hand when he puts her to bed and he appears to feel awkward about it. He gets up during the night and puts a gun to her head, presumably to keep his life from getting complicated by Mathilde's problems, but finds he can't do it.
He tells her to take off after breakfast. She asks "Where to?" and he says "Not my problem." She writes a note telling him she wants to be a cleaner with her life. Leon reveals that he can't read. She also tells him that if he kicks her out now, he might as well have never opened his door and let her die in the hall. He tells her that he doesn't think she could be a cleaner because she's just a little girl. Mathilde responds by firing one of his guns several times out the window at random, which apparently changes his mind. He takes her to a hotel where they check in posed as father and daughter.He visits Tony to get his beginner's weapons, and starts teaching Mathilde to use a rifle from long range on the hotel rooftop. Explaining that the more professional you get, the closer you can get to the target, a knife being the last thing you learn.He tells her to pick a target, reciting "No women, no kids, right?" She picks a jogger and hits him with her first shot (which is only paint) asking immediately if she can use real bullets now.
In a game of charades, Leon reveals that he knows nothing of pop culture, except for Gene Kelly, missing Mathilde's impersonations of Marilyn Monroe, Charlie Chaplin and Madonna. They also have a fight with a spray bottle and a bucket of water, and generally they just have fun for a bit. Leon visits Tony (Danny Aiello) again, who lets him know he's missed a lot of good jobs. Leon asks about his money, which Tony keeps for him, explaining he might want to give someone to some else "to help" It's revealed that Tony took Leon in when he first came to the country, and that at some point in the past, he got in trouble over a woman. Tony gives him a new job, and tells him to ask anytime he wants his money. Seeing her talk to some guy on the street, Leon pulls her away from him and tells her to stop smoking and cursing. She instantly agrees and later on tells Leon that she thinks she's in love with him, causing him to spit out a glass of milk.
Leon heads out to do his latest job. Mathilde talks to the hotel clerk, and makes up a story telling him that Leon isn't really her father, but her lover. She then heads to her old apartment and ignores the crime scene tape, she grabs a stuffed bunny and some money that was hidden in the floorboards. Stansfield also shows up to reenact the shooting for police investigators. When he can't keep the details straight he yells "I ain't got time for this Mickey Mouse bullshit!" Mathilde isn't spotted, but pays a cabbie to follow Stansfield's car, so she can discover where he works. Leon arrives at the hotel after her, and gives her a present. She doesn't seem interested and soon the clerk arrives to speak with him. They're ejected from the hotel due to Mathilde's earlier story, so they return to Leon's apartment. Leon gives himself stitches, showing he was injured in his last job, he reveals to Tony that the job isn't done yet. He gets more serious with Tony, explaining that "if something happens to him" he wants Mathilde to get his money.
Mathilde dresses up like Leon and waits for Stansfield to go to work. She poses as a Chinese food delivery person to get through security. She then gets cornered by Stansfield in the restroom, where he reveals he heard her saying special delivery. When quizzed about Italian food, she quickly reveals why she's there.
Mathilda: You killed my brother.
Stansfield: I'm sorry. And you want to join him?
Stansfield: It's always the same thing. It's when you start to become really afraid of death that you learn to appreciate life. Do you like life, sweetheart?
Stansfield: That's good, because I take no pleasure in taking life if it's from a person who doesn't care about it.
Stansfield pulls his gun, but the scene is interrupted by one of his guys coming in and explaining that Malky is dead and was killed by an outside professional who said "no women, no kids" just before shooting him. He decides not to shoot Mathilde in the restroom, but asks his man to bring her to his office. Leon arrives home to find a note (he has learned to read) from Mathilde explaining what she's doing, along with $20,000 "for a contract" The DEA agents go through Mathilde's bag finding lots of guns when Leone comes right into the building and up to the office, killing the two men holding Mathilde and taking her home.
Stansfield beats Leon's address out of Tony after the shooting. Stansfield waits on the street for Mathilde to go to the store. Leon reminds her of their secret knock, obviously aware that they could be in danger. Stansfield's men grab her in the hallway heading back up and many swat type officers are ready to storm the apartment. Mathilde gives them a fake secret knock and Leon surprises them killing them easily. When the men in the hall report, men down. Stansfield replies "Bring me everyone!"
Leon forces them to let Mathilde go, holding an agent at gunpoint. He closes the door and he opens up a wall so Mathilde can get out through the vents. She realizes he won't fit and starts crying.
Mathilde: I don't wanna lose you, Leon.
Léon: You're not going to lose me. You've given me a taste for life. I wanna be happy. Sleep in a bed, have roots. And you'll never be alone again, Mathilda. Please, go now, baby, go. Calm down, go now, go.
He says, "I love you Mathilda." and she answers, "I love you Leon."
They hit the apartment with heavy fire and explosives. Leon dresses as one of the agents, including a gas mask and the men carry him put of the wrecked apartment as an injured agent. Stansfield sees what's happened, but doesn't mention it. Mathilde makes it out to the street with Leon's plant, while Leon follows Stansfield, seemingly unaware that Stansfield actually snuck up behind him and has a gun to his head. Leon collapses and Stansfield stands over him. Barely able to speak, he musters,
Stansfield: At your service.
Leon: This is from Mathilda
He presses a grenade pin into Stansfield's palm, and he realizes Leon has grenades strapped around his body, leaving Mathilda free to go back to school and plant Leon's plant (which she calls Leon) in the ground.
The Professional is an interesting movie in that it isn't at all what it appears to be. Sure, it's exciting, and there's plenty of shooting, but this is movie more concerned with the risks and rewards of building a relationship. Leon keeps to himself not because he can't love anyone else, but because he knows that he can and this makes him vulnerable. Despite his attempts to be distant, he can't ignore the girl in the hallway. While he doesn't attempt to intervene until it's a life or death situation, he also doesn't walk by without stopping. It's very significant that Leon's act of intervention was simply to open his door.
Luc Besson has constructed a parable using guns. Technically, the movie balances between exciting action sequences and quiet character moments well enough to satisfy those looking for either one. The final shootout in the apartment scene is as good a shootout as I've seen, original, unpredictable and fast. The solid story becomes great due to the wonderful actors involved. Reno can play the likable loner well enough, but his true gift is that he can play a man who opens the door to a girl in trouble, and just as convincingly debate shooting her in her sleep. While not really a character study, the characters here are given enough depth that we don't question their idiosyncrasies. Leon is not "good" by any stretch of the imagination, neither is he heartless. Oldman's character on the other hand is completely over the top psychotic. Oldman is a perfect choice for Stansfield, and we sense a character ruled by his own logic, which doesn't make sense to anyone else in the world. Stansfield is evil, spiteful and malicious, so much so that Leon's "no women, no kids" rule, by comparison looks virtuous. Natalie Portman is also great, especially considering she was a child in this movie. Her part was the centerpiece of the movie and she certainly rose to the occasion, giving just the right balance of cynical and naive.
Ultimately, "The Professional" is a movie about the responsibility of opening up your door to another. For all Leon's initial reluctance to get involved, he quickly accepts the trade off, knowing the likely consequence. Because he saved Mathilde's life (as she reminds him) he is responsible for it. While he is slow to make a decision, once made, he accepts it completely as his own and in time this reveals that he is capable of great love. Their attachment is accelerated by necessity and both of them being alone in the world. Stansfield on the other hand is pure malice, but the interesting commentary is that Stansfield's men, while not overtly malicious (just following orders) think nothing of killing a whole family, including a four year old boy. While Stansfield might as well have villain painted on his forehead, he makes the decisions, and thus is responsible for the lives he takes. Leon, in the beginning is more of a direct contrast to Stansfield's crew, he performs the jobs he's given, that's it. Stansfield's men make no decisions on their own, so whatever they do can be aimed at Stansfield. When Leon saves Mathilde, he becomes Stansfield's equal in that he has taken responsibility and the question becomes, is love proves a greater force than malice? Stansfield won't sacrifice everything for his hatred (he decides not to kill Mathilde in the restroom, so as not to jeopardize his career) and so we're left with a question of commitment, which Leon answers, giving everything without complaint in order to give Mathilde a chance.