Writer-director Luc Besson’s action thriller Leon (aka The Professional) was one of the most talked about films of 1994, and it made an instant star out of Natalie Portman. Aged just 13 at the time of Leon’s release, Portman’s old-beyond-her-years performance wowed audiences and critics. Naturally, after the film proved a commercial success, its director started planning a follow-up.
Besson originally hoped to continue the Leon story with a sequel that would have centred on Portman’s character Mathilda, as she follows in Leon’s footsteps as a ‘cleaner.’ However, years passed and no film emerged. Ultimately, Mathilda: The Professional was cancelled and reworked as the 2011 Zoe Saldana thriller Colombiana, partly because Besson no longer held the Leon rights – and partly because Portman no longer wished to reprise a role that made her feel “unsafe”.
(Advisory: Leon spoilers follow)
Leon was the very first acting role of Natalie Portman, who turned 12 soon after the film began production in June 1993. Jean Reno may take the title role of the deadly yet socially awkward assassin, but Portman arguably steals the movie as Mathilda, Leon’s young neighbour (although there’s also much to be said about Gary Oldman’s deranged turn as corrupt DEA Agent Norman Stansfield).
Mathilda is left orphaned when Stansfield kills her family, and on discovering what Leon does for a living she persuades him to train her so she can take revenge. A grown man teaching a young girl how to kill is a provocative enough idea, but Leon pushes the envelope further by having the precocious Mathilda develop a crush on the far older hitman – and, although Reno plays it with a degree of ambiguity, it seems that Leon reciprocates these feelings.
Besson’s original script went much further, including nudity and a sex scene, but Portman’s parents only agreed to her casting if those scenes were rewritten. Even without those scenes, Leon’s first cut still went too far for some. Originally the film featured more footage of Mathilda being taught the art of assassination, plus scenes which saw her getting drunk and asking Leon outright to go to bed with her. When test audiences reacted negatively to these scenes, they were cut from the theatrically released version.
Earning $46.1 million at the box office off the back of a $16 million budget, Leon proved a commercial success, and was on the whole well-received by critics. Although there was some controversy over the film’s presentation of the young Portman, the film demonstrated that the previously unknown youngster could hold her own alongside adult actors, and Portman quickly became in demand in Hollywood.
While Portman struggled post-Leon with typecasting in Lolita-esque roles (indeed, she turned down the lead in the 1997 Lolita remake), she appeared in such hit films as Heat and Mars Attacks! before landing the coveted role of Padme Amidala in the hotly anticipated Star Wars prequels, starting with 1999’s Episode I: The Phantom Menace. By the time work began on Episode II: Attack of the Clones, Portman turned 20, and it became apparent that, unlike some child stars, she was successfully transitioning into mature roles.
Luc Besson, meanwhile, went from the well-received Leon to the fully-fledged blockbuster success of 1997’s The Fifth Element, although his 1999 historical epic The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc proved a flop. Besson had another project on the back-burner at the time, though: a direct sequel to Leon, which was to centre on Natalie Portman’s Mathilda.
Besson is reported to have first considered a Mathilda movie whilst still working on Leon, but felt it made sense to wait until Portman was older. Director Olivier Megaton, a protege of Besson, said in 2011, “Luc tried to do this movie again and again – he proposed it to me [in 1998]”.
A screenplay was written, and Portman was keen to do it: in 2003, the actress hinted it would be her next project after completing Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, hailing Besson’s script as “really great.”
The concept for Mathilda: The Professional was simple. Now an adult, Mathilda has followed in Leon’s footsteps and become a professional ‘cleaner,’ but she is still haunted by the murder of her family. With Leon having killed the men directly responsible, Mathilda would pick up where her lost mentor left off, following the trail back to the drug cartel that put her family in harm’s way to begin with.
Besson wanted to make the film, and so did Portman, but there was one very significant obstacle: they didn’t own the rights to Leon. Besson made Leon, and most of his earlier films, for French studio Gaumont. However, after the costly failure of 1999’s The Messenger (which took only $67 million at the box office after costing $60 million to make), Gaumont reportedly “declined to support [Besson’s] ambitions as a producer.” Details are thin on the ground, but it’s rumoured that Besson fell out with the top brass at Gaumont in a big way.
This prompted the enterprising filmmaker to jump ship and form his own studio, Europacorp, in 2000. Besson enjoyed considerable success with Europacorp: the studio has produced such smash hits as The Transporter and Taken franchises, as well as all Besson’s subsequent films as director including 2005’s Angel-A and 2017’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. Unfortunately, in parting ways with Gaumont, Besson had to give up ownership of all the earlier films he had made for the studio – which, of course, included Leon.
This meant that, despite the script being written and the leading lady being keen to do it, Besson could not legally produce a Leon sequel. For this reason, Besson and his frequent co-writer Robert Mark Kamen heavily rewrote Mathilda: The Professional into a standalone action thriller. Filmed in 2011, with Olivier Megaton directing and Zoe Saldana in the lead, Colombiana portrays an assassin who – like Mathilda – saw her family murdered as a child and seeks vengeance.
While the premise was similar to what had been planned for Mathilda, Megaton insists Saldana’s Cataleya Restrepo was a very different character. “When you write a script you always think about what your heart is asking… If Mathilda was there, she should have done this or that. [Besson] had to forget everything, because it’s a new story.” As director, Megaton himself had some say in this: “In the initial script, we had much more references to La Femme Nikita [Besson’s earlier assassin movie] and The Professional, but after the first reading, I said maybe it’s a little too much.”
Colombiana was not a huge critical or commercial success, but Luc Besson has gone on to make more films about female assassins, including 2014’s Lucy (starring Scarlett Johansson) and 2019’s Anna. It might be, then, that the filmmaker has explored this territory so thoroughly that even if a Mathilda movie were to be made today, there would be no new ground to break. Moreover, questions might be asked about whether or not all concerned would still be as keen to make the Mathilda movie – Natalie Portman in particular.
In more recent years, Portman has been outspoken on feminist issues, working closely with the anti-sexual harassment movement Time’s Up. Appearing at the 2018 Women’s March, the actress spoke publicly of how her sexualised screen image in Leon impacted her personally, revealing that her very first piece of fan mail was a “rape fantasy” from an older male, and how such attention made her feel “unsafe” at a particularly vulnerable age.
2018 also saw Luc Besson accused of rape by a number of actresses. While a civil lawsuit taken out against the filmmaker was dismissed by a judge in 2021, Besson remains a tarnished figure – particularly as it has become more widely known that Maïwenn Le Besco, Besson’s wife at the time Leon was made, first began a romantic relationship with the director when she was 15 and he was 32.
With many film industry figures now keen to distance themselves from Besson, it seems unlikely that Portman (who has expressed regret about working with Woody Allen and voicing support for Roman Polanski) would break ranks to work with the filmmaker again. In any case, Besson himself seems to feel the time has passed. The director remarked in 2021 that if he were to ever make Mathilda: The Professional, “50% of people in this world will hate me, and the other half will be happy, and everybody will be disappointed in the end anyway.”