Face-Off: La Femme Nikita vs. Léon: The Professional

Last Updated on August 5, 2021

In last week’s Face-Off, you decided that Vin Diesel fighting off nocturnal flying space predators in PITCH BLACK was cooler than him battling an empire of pretentious zombie-soldiers bent on universal conquest in THE CHRONICLES OF RIDDICK.

With the release of French director Luc Besson’s THE FAMILY this Friday, I decided to revisit his two action masterpieces, LA FEMME NIKITA (1990) and LEON:THE PROFESSIONAL (1994). The good news is that Jean Reno is in both movies and the better news is that Chris Tucker is in neither.

Les Femmes
The stunning Anne Parillaud walked away with a César (France’s equivalent of an Oscar) for playing a convicted felon that gets rehabilitated by a secret branch of the French government to become a professional spy/assassin with a license to kill. Parillaud’s performance is a tour-de-force as she goes on a journey that sees her transform from a manic drug-addicted murderer to a female James Bond to a woman head over heels in love. She kills, she charms, she cries and she wins your heart in a performance that the Academy Awards’ brass should have taken notice of as well.
The Academy Awards nominations committee laid another egg by also ignoring the brilliant performance of 12-year-old Natalie Portman in her silver screen debut. Sure they threw an Oscar her way years later for playing a demented ballerina but she should have been noticed in ‘94 for portraying Mathilda, an abused, newly-orphaned young girl that befriends a professional French assassin named Léon (Jean Reno) in New York City. She then slowly begins to soften his heart and his soul and starts falling in love with him in the process.

Although Little Nat didn’t win an Oscar or a César, she was just as memorable, convincing and captivating as Parillaud was in her role. Add to that, she went head-to-head with all-stars Jean Reno and Gary Oldman and pulled it off like a seasoned pro. Both ladies were flawless in their respective roles so this was an easy one to call – it’s a tie.
Thrills and Kills
LA FEMME NIKITA starts off with a bang with an extremely hectic, loud and bloody robbery gone wrong that caught my attention immediately and set the tone perfectly the rest of the way through. When I originally saw this movie I certainly didn’t expect the level of action, grit and style from the French which up to that point were more famous for their impressive dramas, original comedies and the Emmanuelle films (ahem!).

Not only were the action sequences superior to most American films in this genre but they were handled so skillfully that I really took notice and started seeking out earlier films this Besson character had directed. I still revisit this movie regularly and it has quietly climbed the charts in my all-time favorite thrillers and now sits comfortably in the top 5. It’s smart, it’s bloody and it’s one of the most original action movies you’re ever likely to see.
LEON:THE PROFESSIONAL also boasts some great action sequences (the first time we see Léon clean house is especially good) but they are mostly concentrated at the beginning and at the tail end of the movie. The middle portion focuses mainly on the character development of Mathilda and Léon which is essential to the movie. The action in LA FEMME NIKITA is a lot more balanced throughout its run.

Although most of the action scenes in the film are on par with those in LA FEMME NIKITA, they didn’t have nearly the same level of grittiness and darkness to them and it’s mostly for this reason that I hand the victory over to Besson’s 1990 effort in this category. I was just a lot more tense watching the character of Nikita battle murderers and thugs than I was seeing Léon do the same. The kills, blood and the action are even in both movies but LA FEMME NIKITA definitely has a little more tension, grit and thrills in it than LEON:THE PROFESSIONAL does.
Love Story
It’s always a bonus when a guy can tell his lady friend that the action movie she’s agreed to watch with him has a little romance in it too. I once lied to my chick about THE THING (1982) having some tenderness in it and spent about a week in the doghouse afterwards. In this category, I’ll be looking at which of the two movies packs the bigger punch in the love department.

LA FEMME NIKITA is one of those rare films that has blood, sweat, tears… and a very touching love story. The guys will be happy to see many imaginative action sequences and bloody deaths and the gals will swoon as they witness the unique love/hate relationship that Nikita forms with her mentor Bob (the always impressive Tcheky Karyo) as well as the romance that blooms with her new boyfriend Marco (Jean-Hughes Anglade). It’s a great movie to enjoy on a cold rainy night in with the missus.
I thought that LA FEMME NIKITA had a lot of heart but LEON:THE PROFESSIONAL really gives it a run for its money. I never thought I’d use the words “sweet” and heartwarming” when describing this movie but it really is that and so much more. Here we have a love story between a 12-year-old American girl and a middle-aged French killer and yet it doesn’t make you squirm at any point because their affection for one another unfolds in a very natural and casual way.

They save one another from very dreary existences and become happier and find more purpose in their lives with each passing day. Natalie Portman’s final line in the movie: “I think we’ll be okay here, Léon”, followed by the Sting song ‘Shape of my Heart’ seals the victory for LEON:THE PROFESSIONAL in this category.
LA FEMME NIKITA scores a couple of points in the tiebreaker because its story was so unique and fresh that it was remade in the U.S. as POINT OF NO RETURN (1993); a sleepy, watered-down travesty that even Harvey Keitel couldn’t save. Still, a soft American remake does not change the fact that Besson’s script really struck a chord at the time and brought some originality and real emotion into the action film genre which had other filmmakers ready to poach his idea immediately. This film snags another point because it also spawned a TV series that lasted for five seasons.
LEON:THE PROFESSIONAL is quirkier, funnier and most importantly features the legendary Gary Oldman (who provides most of the quirky and the funny). Oldman chews up every scene he is in and makes ordinary words like “bingo” and “everyone” stay with you long after the end credits have rolled. Watching this crooked cop popping pills is, for me, reason alone for watching this movie.

In the end, LEON:THE PROFESSIONAL has the better villain (LA FEMME NIKITA actually doesn’t have a clear-cut villain in it), is more visually stunning, has the better score and soundtrack (French accordions and a well-placed Björk song give the movie some flavor) and features one of the greatest actors of our era hamming it up every second he’s on film. I love both these movies and wanted to call this a tie but LEON:THE PROFESSIONAL just seems to have a little more of the “this and that” to earn the win.
Léon: The Professional
If you haven’t seen either of these two flicks yet you should tell your boss you’re feeling ill tomorrow, ship the tots off to grandma’s, sit back with some homemade nachos and get ready to take in two of the best action/thrillers that the early 90s had to offer. Sure, LEON:THE PROFESSIONAL eked out a win in this battle but I awarded the victory with no joy whatsoever because there are no real losers when you have two classics like this in a race.

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