Imagine the elevator pitch for The Professional. “Okay, so we’ve got this hitman, right? Only he’s not a cool hitman: He’s great at killing, but he’s also childlike, off-kilter, possibly on the spectrum. He doesn’t really have any friends or talk to anyone outside of ‘work.’ We’ll make sure he doesn’t speak English that well. And there’s this girl, too. She’s 12, and near the beginning of the movie, we’re gonna have her whole family get massacred in a bad drug deal. And yeah, that does mean we’ll be killing another little kid in the first half-hour. Still with me? Okay, she wants revenge, so she convinces this hitman to take her in and train her. Oh, also: The 12-year-old smokes and cusses, and we’re going to film her in some seriously creepy and fetishistic ways, and she’ll fall in love with the hitman, and he’ll seem to be completely cool with that. Danny Aiello already said yes! We got Aiello!”
The Hollywood of 1994 was not the same as the Hollywood of today, but it’s still virtually impossible to ever imagine any studio head green-lighting a movie this obviously batshit. Really, the fact that The Professional exists at all probably comes down to one thing: It’s not really a Hollywood movie at all. It’s French, made with French money, and partially shot in France, albeit set in America with mostly English and American actors. It’s the first English-language movie from Luc Besson, the French director who’d made La Femme Nikita, and who’d go on to make The Fifth Element and Lucy and a bunch of other equally bonkers movies. This one seems to be an impression of an American crime epic from someone who didn’t really understand how America worked. That’s a big part of why it’s so fucking great.
This is a movie where a mass-murdering hitman lives right down the hallway from a family who gets mass-murdered. Judging by that small sample size, everyone in town must’ve been involved in a mass murder at some point; the old lady who lives down the hall sure doesn’t seem that surprised when Gary Oldman shoots out the window right next to her. That’s what American life must’ve looked like to Besson: just an entire society of criminals looking for excuses to kill each other. If you asked him, he’d probably tell you that every single character here had something illicit going on: The kindly and easily shocked hotel clerk probably had a side-hustle selling black-market babies. It’s that kind of movie, one that takes place in a reality so heightened that it bears only a cosmetic resemblance to our own. Everything rings wrong: A 12-year-old can aimlessly fire an automatic pistol out of an apartment window without any consequences for anyone. But this all has its own bloody-minded logic, and it works because it follows its own rules.
It also works because of Gary motherfucking Oldman. The guy was on a hell of a run before he signed on to play Stansfield, the cartoonishly evil villain and the architect of that family-massacre. Just a year earlier, he’d played Drexel, the dreadlocked killer pimp from True Romance; that’s a hard role to top, but he pulls it off here, frantically popping pills, stage-whispering death sentences, enthusing about classical music in the moments just before he kills a guy. He’s flying off in some other atmosphere the whole time he’s onscreen in this thing. My favorite moment: when he continues to fire round after round into a body he’s already killed. When an underling tells him that the guy is already dead, Oldman barks back: “He ruined my suit!” It’s the best. Watching the movie, you want to see him gets what’s coming to him, but you also just want to watch him.
Nobody else in the movie can compare. As our hero, Jean Reno does the whole menacing thing well, but his character is also a murder savant, and we probably get too many scenes of him wandering around in a fog, unable to make any sense out of anyone. It’s Reno’s first English-speaking role, and I’m pretty sure he’s supposed to be Italian, but he never does anything to hide his thick-ass French accent. This also marks Natalie Portman’s first feature role, and you can see little sparks of the great actress she’d become, but she was 12 here, and nowhere near that yet. The story of a little girl and her murderous father figure is sweet in its way, but Besson really didn’t need to pull the hilariously creepy move of dressing her up like Madonna and Marilyn Monroe, or of having her telling Reno that she’s in love with him. It’s just not necessary. Portman turned out fine, of course; it’s not like the role scarred her for life or anything. But if you can watch this today without getting creeped out once or twice, you’re probably a creep yourself.
But despite some deeply questionable choices, The Professional really works as a showcase for everything Besson could do. Almost every shot is some crazy, counterintuitive thing. The movie opens with a camera flying over Central Park, turning into a fisheye zoom-in on the Little Italy restaurant where Reno gets his contracts. When he’s on a job, Reno’s face emerges from shadows, then disappears again when he’s made his point. And the camera just worships Oldman, giving us a good minute to take in the back of his head before it ever allows us to see his face.
This is a self-consciously weird little film, the type to set a training montage to Björk’s “Venus as a Boy.” But it also works incredibly well as a straight-up action flick. The gunfights are filmed with verve and liveliness, and some of the shots, like the RPG rocket blasting into an apartment, stick with you for years. For all its high-mindedness, though, The Professional also has a cast of interchangeable cannon-fodder bad guys not that different from what you’d see from, say, an era-appropriate Steven Seagal movie. (Though I can’t remember any random Seagal bad guys as strange as the white dreadlocked thug here who has no accent, but uses Jamaican slang anyway.) It’s a movie that works on plenty of levels: as an unconventional love story, as a series of impossibly inventive camera shots, as an example of the sort of shit you used to be able to get away with in the movies. But if you also just want to watch some people shooting each other, you won’t find a whole lot of better examples on Netflix.
Tom Breihan is the senior editor at Stereogum; he’s written for Pitchfork, the Village Voice, GQ, Grantland, and the Classical. He lives in Charlottesville, Va. He is tall, and on Twitter.
Netflix Instant doesn’t have to feel like a depleted Blockbuster in 1990, where you spend half an hour browsing hopeless straight-to-video thrillers before saying “fuck it” and loading up another Archer. Streaming services can be an absolute treasure trove, particularly if you like action movies, and especially if you like foreign action movies. Every week in this space, we’ll highlight a new one.
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