`The Professional': Stylish But Off-Target

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XX 1/2 "The Professional," with Jean Reno, Natalie Portman, Gary Oldman and Danny Aiello. Written and directed by Luc Besson. Newmark, Metro, Kirkland Parkplace, Everett 9, Grand Cinemas Alderwood, Mountlake 9, Parkway Plaza, Puyallup, SeaTac North. "R" - Restricted; violence, profanity. -----------------------------------------------------------------

When "La Femme Nikita" was released in 1990, French director Luc Besson was chastised by French critics for making what they saw as a blatantly American action film. It hardly mattered what the snooty critics thought; the film was a huge worldwide hit that spawned a redundantly uninspired American remake.

With "The Professional," Besson has done a handy turnaround by making a distinctly French-flavored action film in America. It's a small step down from "La Femme Nikita," and like most of Besson's films it's never very believable. But like Quentin Tarantino, Besson has a singular style and directorial sensibility that keeps you watching.

With plots and characters that would fit nicely in darkly humorous comic books "for mature readers," Besson's films seem to be aimed at post-adolescent nihilists and posers with a death wish. But along with the brutal violence and gritty Euro-gloss, he invests his antiheroes with the kind of genuine emotional depth that most American action films don't even bother to attempt.

In this case, Besson develops a dubious yet engaging relationship between an icily efficient immigrant assassin (played by Jean Reno), who does contract jobs for a New York mob boss (Danny Aiello), and a hardened 12-year-old girl (newcomer Natalie Portman). The girl seeks the killer's tutelage when her family is slaughtered by a corrupt DEA agent, played with malicious abandon by Gary Oldman.

With the girl seeking revenge and the bad cop looking to eliminate threats to his security, it's only a matter of time before bullets fly and body counts rise. But Besson's saving grace is that he's equally interested in the humanity of his beastly scenario.

With his beak nose and scarry face, Reno is the antithesis of the glamorous movie star, but he's got a riveting on-screen presence. And his quirky, insomniac hit man presents a fascinating case of arrested development, as if his emotional growth had ceased when he first learned to kill.

At one point, the girl teasingly claims the assassin is her lover. But the potentially disturbing sexuality of this makeshift father-daughter relationship is held discreetly in check. Besson tastefully preserves the innocence of this odd couple, one childlike yet deadly, the other having witnessed far too much ugliness with her woman-child's eyes.

It's a deft combination of character study and crackling thriller, but in the latter department Besson lets himself down. "The Professional" is certainly never boring, but while Oldman hams up his villainy to giddy effect, Besson's plotting grows increasingly absurd. By the time an army of SWAT cops shows up to knock off one guy, "The Professional" has become too American for its own good.