Not to be confused with the 1980’s British cop show where two guys who obviously fancy themselves thwarted baddies around a grotty looking London, The Professionals was made in 1966 by Richard Brooks, the man who gave us Cat On A Hot Tin Roof and Blackboard Jungle and featured such acting heavyweights as Burt Lancaster, Jack Palance and professional alcoholic and legendary portrayer of hard boiled tough guys, Lee Marvin.
However, despite feeling a tad familiar to one or two other westerns of note (That I’ll no doubt name drop later in a desperate effort to sound smart), The Professionals manages to stand on it’s own two, strongly defiant legs thanks to some rousing twists, genuinely intriguing characters and a rock solid cast who put in stellar work by simply being… well, professional.
We’re in the final years of the Mexican Revolution and the incredibly wealthy J.W. Grant sends out word to some certain individuals that he needs their aid and needs it pronto. It seems that his statuesque Mexican wife, Maria has ridden over the wrong side of the border and has got herself kidnapped by notorious and awesomely named freedom fighter Jesus Raza and Grant enlists the best of the best to get her back.
Making up this roll call of experts in their respective fields is granite featured Henry Fardan who is a master tactician and weapons expert, Jake Sharp who is an accomplish scout and a dead shot with a bow, Hans Ehrengard who knows everything their is to know about horses and Bill Dolworth who is the man you need if your plan relies on making things go boom. As an added bonus, both Fardan and Dolworth are very familiar with Raza as they all rode together under the command of Pancho Villa but despite both of them respecting him as a soldier, neither – thanks to their cynical, world weary ways – have an issue plugging him full of holes if it’ll help them get paid.
Heading out across the border while trying to withstand the broiling heat of the day, the frigid cold of the night and avoiding the pistoleros of gangs of roving bandits, the four men work their way to Raza’s sizable camp which is crawling with more dangerous Mexicans than Robert Rodriguez’s filmography.
Figuring out a plan that involves explosives, more explosives and Jake shooting arrows that have – yup – explosives tied to them, the group stage a daring rescue and it seems that the sizable reward is all theirs to split between them. However, things aren’t all that they seem and a problem arises that no one could have foreseen and as they race back towards the border with Maria in their possession, Raza and his remaining men give chase. But now knowing what they know, will these four men, who have chosen gold over integrity many times before, make the right choice when the chips are down and the guns are drawn?
If I were to describe to you a western that entailed a group of rugged men riding into extremely hostile territory to rescue a kidnapped wife there’s a very good chance you’d assume I’d be nattering about John Wayne’s seminal The Searchers, but while The Professionals may not have the most original premise in the world, but it manages to plough it’s own distinctive furrow thanks primarily to it’s two intriguing leads.
Taking top billing is Burt Lancaster’s multi-layered Dolworth, an unrepentant man whore who is introduced scrambling out of a window in his worryingly stained long johns after nearly being caught planting his explosive charge in a married woman and whose mercenary outlook on life is sorely tested when this mission suddenly gets complicated and Burt is utterly charming, even when his default setting is to abandon things when shit gets too dangerous. It’s a delicate balance to find the sweet spot on a man with precious few morals but who isn’t an unmitigated, unlikeable coward but a deft hand at characterization and Burt’s charisma makes him relatable and even makes his running feud/affair with busty revolutionary and old flame “Si Si Chaquita” (so named because she always says yes) is actually quite touching. On the flip side, Lee Marvin’s Henry Farzan is the type of character the actor is more than familiar playing – a former, broken idealist who’s word is still as unchanging and serious as his enigmatic facial expressions who’s dedication to finishing the mission is as unhalting as a great white shark with a propeller in it’s butthole. The friendship between these too familiar war horses who have utterly opposing morals despite having very similar pasts is the meat of the story and the other two members of the team feel a little underwritten while standing in their accumulated shadow. Robert Ryan’s rancher only seems to exist to question how cold blooded everyone else is and be generally quite naive about matters while Woody Strode’s mysterious tracker has virtually no personality beyond doing lots of legitimately cool shit with his bow and arrow and predates John Rambo’s exploding quivers by a fair mark.
While the central twist is fairly easy to crack these days (Spoiler: Maria hasn’t been kidnapped at all, but is in fact Raza’s lover) but what stands the test of time is that Raza himself is a far more layered character than the cackling Mexican black hat you usually get in westerns and who’s bad guy status is very much in question when the truth starts to come out. Although even though I love Jack Palance (who doesn’t) and he brings so much to the role, it’s just a shame that sensibilities at the time were cool with painting him brown and having him deliver his lines from beneath Bob Belcher’s moustache…
Also – and there’s some real spoilers coming up – after such an arduous and gruelling mission, it feels somewhat of a cop-out that none of the main cast die by the time the credits roll (even Raza) which lessens some of the impact of this supposedly impossible mission and ends things on a triumphant, yet strangely trite, moral victory that’s oddly consequence free despite the fact our heroes have caused massive problems on both sides of the border.
A insanely solid cowpokes-on-a-mission movie that matches it’s three dimentional characters with some hugely satisfying action (this movie blows shit up real good), The Professionals may not be ranked quite as highly as some other legendary westerns, but it has the wit, the grit and the firepower to make it’s sprawling runtime gallop by.