Slice and Dice

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Luc Besson is not an action director. He is a violence director, probably the best in the business right now. He discomfits a lot of people because he is always on the dangerous edge of aestheticizing psychopathically murderous behavior. It's a subject we prefer to see treated cartoonishly so that we can pretend our enjoyment of it is pure escapism.

Besson has a curious fondness for lost girls making their way in a brutal world. In La Femme Nikita his heroine was a drugged-out, teenage murderess- drifter rescued from the guillotine by an intelligence agency and given a new life as an assassin. In The Professional, set in New York City, his subject is a 12-year-old named Mathilda (Natalie Portman), the only member of her family to survive a criminal massacre. She turns to a neighbor for succor. Leon (Jean Reno) is an inarticulate fellow. He drinks milk by the gallon, tenderly cares for a plant that is his only friend and likes old Gene Kelly movies. He is devoted to his work as a "cleaner," a Mob hit man of rare talent.

The bonding of Mathilda and Leon may be among the strangest in the long, tiresome history of odd-couple movies. The sweetness that develops between them as they try to elude the rogue dea agent who orchestrated her family's death (a divinely psychotic Gary Oldman) is crazily dislocating, the more so since Besson's French vision of the New York underworld is so eerily unreal. His final shootout is masterly cinema -- this is a Cuisinart of a movie, mixing familiar yet disparate ingredients, making something odd, possibly distasteful, undeniably arresting out of them.