Tuesday, July 1, 2014

In short: The Professionals (1966)

Oil millionaire Grant (Ralph Bellamy), hires four professionals – former revolutionary Fardan (Lee Marvin), his explosives expert best buddy, the amoral Dolworth (Burt Lancaster), superior scout Jake (Woody Strode) and horse expert Ehrengard (Robert Ryan) – to return his wife Maria (Claudia Cardinale) to him who has been kidnapped by Mexican revolutionary/bandit Raza (Jack Palance) for a ransom of one hundred thousand dollars.

Raza is an old friend of Fardan’s and Dolworth’s but they still take on the job, first making a dangerous trip through the desert on the US/Mexican border, only to learn their employer just might not have told them the whole truth about the situation, and the kidnapping is anything but; not that this sort of thing matters all that much, one does have a contract with Grant, after all. On the other hand, long forgotten consciences might just be reawakened after a lot of people have died.

Quite a few reviewers on the net call Richard Brooks’s The Professional stuff like “an underseen classic” or even “one of the best westerns ever made” but frankly, I don’t see it. To earn any of these superlatives from me, a film needs a bit more than a slickly professional direction, a bunch of beloved (by me too!) aging tough guy actors going through the typical motions of this sort of thing, or picture postcard pretty photography.

What the film lacks for me are two things, and including just one of them might have been enough to turn this from perfectly watchable to great. Firstly, depth: sure, there’s a bit of moral deliberation about the uses and causes of revolutions and the men who fight in them, but the results the film arrives at aren’t exactly the stringent result of thematic work as they are in Leone’s and Corbucci’s revolutionary themed Spaghetti Westerns. In fact, I’d go so far as to say the moral conclusions the film draws aren’t actually convincing results of what happens in it at all, thanks to a script (also by Brooks) that tends to be desperately underwritten and leaves its inspired cast as ciphers. A Cipher, as you know, isn’t anything that does have any character or moral development per definition at all.

Secondly, the film’s very relaxed approach to storytelling does result in a certain lack of drama. Sure, there are shoot-outs, chases and an attack on a bandit fortification, and every single one of them is realized in perfectly competent manner, yet they all lack any sense of actual danger, the film never making a successful effort bringing home the stakes of any given situation.

Having said this, I don’t want to leave anyone reading in the impression I didn’t find watching The Professionals a perfectly enjoyable time; it just seems to lack in any ambition beyond being a pleasant time waster. Unfortunately there’s so much obvious talent before and behind the camera a pleasant time waster does seem like a bit of a waste of other things also.

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