The rifle is the first weapon you learn how to use, because it lets you keep
your distance from the client. The closer you get to being a pro, the closer you
can get to the client. The knife, for example, is the last thing you learn.
Léon (Jean Reno) is a hitman (or "cleaner" as he would rather be known) living a solitary life in New York City's Little Italy. Most of his work comes from a mafioso named Tony (Danny Aiello), who operates from the "Supreme Macaroni Company" retail store. Leon spends his idle time engaging in calisthenics, nurturing a houseplant that early on he describes as his "best friend", and (in one scene) watching old Gene Kelly musicals.
On a particular day on his way home, he sees Mathilda Lando (Natalie Portman), a twelve-year-old girl with a black eye and smoking a cigarette, living with her dysfunctional family in an apartment down the hallway. Mathilda's father (Michael Badalucco) attracts the ire of corrupt DEA agents, who have been paying him to store cocaine in his residence, after they discover that he has been stealing some of the drugs for himself. A cadre of DEA agents storm the building, led by a ragged and drug-addicted Norman "Stan" Stansfield (Gary Oldman), murders Mathilda's entire family, missing her only because she was out shopping when they arrived. When she returns with the groceries she was sent to buy and notices the carnage, she calmly continues down the hallway past the open door of her family's apartment, and receives sanctuary from a reluctant Léon.
Mathilda, who soon discovers that Léon is a hitman, begs him to become her caretaker, and to teach her his skills as a "cleaner": she wants to avenge the murder of her four-year-old brother, the only member of her family that she actually loved. In return, she offers herself as a maid and teacher, remedying Léon's illiteracy. Léon hesitantly accepts her offer and the two begin working together, slowly building an emotional attachment, with Léon becoming a friend and father figure. As they work together, Mathilda admits to Léon several times that she is falling in love with him, but he says nothing back.
As Mathilda increases her confidence and experience, she locates Stansfield, follows him to his office in the DEA building in an attempt to kill him, only to be ambushed by Stansfield in a bathroom. Léon, discovering her intentions after reading a note left for him by Mathilda, rushes to the building and rescues her, shooting two of Stansfield's men in the process.
Stansfield is enraged that what he calls the "Italian hitman" has gone rogue and is killing his men. He confronts Tony and threatens him into surrendering Léon's whereabouts. One day, as Mathilda returns home from grocery shopping, an NYPD ESU (Emergency Service Unit) team, sent by Stansfield, takes her hostage and attempts to infiltrate Léon's apartment. Léon ambushes the ESU team and takes one of their members hostage, rapidly bartering him for Mathilda's freedom. As they slink back into the apartment, Léon creates a quick escape for Matilda as he reassures her and tells her that he loves her moments before they come for him.
In the chaos that follows, Léon sneaks out of the apartment building disguised as a wounded ESU officer, almost unnoticed save for Stansfield who recognizes him and silently sneaks up and shoots him from behind. Looming over the dying Léon, Stansfield jeers him haughtily. However just before he gives out, Léon places an object in Stansfield's hands, which he explains is "from Mathilda". Opening his hands, Stansfield recognizes it as the pin from a grenade and rips open Léon's vest to discover several now-pinless grenades strung to his chest. Stansfield lets out a brief and final quip "Oh, shit" right before a massive explosion devastates them both.
Mathilda heads to Tony's place as she was instructed to do by Léon. Tony will not give Mathilda more than a few dollars of the fortune Léon had amassed, which was being held by Tony. His reasoning is that she is not old enough to receive the large amount of money and that school should be her priority until she's older. When Mathilda asks Tony to give her a 'job', and insists that she can 'clean' as Leon had, Tony sternly informs her that he 'ain't got no work for a 12-year-old kid!' Having nowhere else to go, she is then seen returning to school using the Roosevelt Island Tramway. Readmitted to the school Mathilda walks into a field with Léon's houseplant in hand, she digs a hole and plants the houseplant in the grounds of the school, as she had once promised Léon she would, "to give it roots."
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