'Professional' star, director an unlikely team

November 18, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

New York -- They are sort of a Mutt-and-Jeff team, or even a good cop-bad cop kind of deal. That would be the tall, lanky and soulful Jean Reno and the short, intense and combative Luc Besson -- facing the American press in support of -- and in defense of -- "The Professional," the hit-man-with-a-heart-of-gold movie fable in which Reno stars under Besson's direction.

Besson has made himself famous already, twice. He blasted his way into world film consciousness with a daring, low-budget but high-style thriller shot in the French underground system called "Subway," back in 1985. That earned him a shot at international movie making, which he promptly squandered on the bomb "The Big Blue," to the scorn of American critics and audiences. Returning to France, he once again blew through the membrane with the sensational "La Femme Nikita," a stylish, cynical shoot-'em-up that was so electric that it was remade in America as "Point of No Return."

It, too, earned Besson an American contract, which he has possibly squandered on "The Professional," a stylish but problematical thriller opening today.

Reno is lesser known internationally, though he has been a Besson collaborator for years and even starred in "The Big Blue."

But if it's a hit, "The Professional" will change all that. Reno's huge, sad eyes and big body, which disguise an ability to move fast and with utter conviction, could easily become iconographic. There's something powerful and a little scary about him (Besson taps into that brilliantly in the film). But it turns out that in conversation, he's the conventional gentle giant, who listens intently and answers honestly. No movie star bushwah for him, jumping straight toward the issue that "The Professional" is sure to provoke.

"I was concerned about the violence, yes," says Reno of the film, in which he becomes the protector of a 12-year-old girl orphaned by grisly drug violence. "I don't think I would allow my own children to see it. But it is, after all, a movie; a movie for adults, which they will enjoy."

Reno played "Victor the Cleaner" in the fabulous "La Femme Nikita," a role that was reprised by Harvey Keitel in the American version and seems to be the basis of Keitel's current appearance in "Pulp Fiction." But it turns out that Reno isn't a great fan of "La Femme Nikita."

"I do not think Luc found a good ending for that movie," he says earnestly. "It seemed to sort of lose its way as it went along." But, he's quick to add, "I think 'The Professional' works much better."

For his part, Besson is the bad cop. Still under 35 and clearly enjoying the enfant terrible image his smashing movies have earned him, he arrives looking something like a thug out of a Genet production: a shock of punkishly thatchy, artifically blond hair, a set of jeans so worn they could have adorned Belmondo way back in "Breathless," and an attitude the size of a giant anvil on his shoulders.

Asked, for example, if it wasn't a little "odd" or "distasteful" for an adult to teach a 12-year-old female orphan how to kill people, his eyes narrow into little copper BBs.

"Well, it is logical. She has been orphaned by the world; she wishes to connect with her new father. That is how one would do it, isn't it?"

No sense of taste or morality intrudes on the Besson world view.

"Violence is an undeniable part of life," he says. "I am the type who won't harm a fly and I'm very forgiving. But if somebody in the street tries to knock on my daughter . . . [possibly he means "hit on my daughter"] I would kill the guy in five seconds. I try to be a normal human being, but I'm a beast on this part. And in that way, of course, everyone is like me. We can't forget that the genetic things inside us are much, much older than the Ten Commandments."

He's even unapologetic about a movie that worships guns, and is loaded with loving, satiny close-ups of their intricacies and voluptuous, gleaming surfaces.

"Did you have to emphasize the guns so much?" he is asked.

"Why? He is a hit man. He would have guns, no?"

"Well, you show them in exquisite, excruciating detail. Is this necessary?"

He tightens up as if he's about to throw a punch.

"He is a hit man," he repeats with steely resolve. "He would have guns, that's all. I don't show them except as he would have them in his life. I don't worship them at all."

This is, frankly, a lie, but sometimes that's all you get out of them.

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