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"In this desert, nothing's harmless until it's dead."
on July 12, 2004
Given the credentials of the people involved in bringing The Professionals (1966) to the screen, written and directed by Richard Brooks, who also did The Killers (1946), Key Largo (1948), Elmer Gantry (1967), and In Cold Blood (1967), starring Lee Marvin, Burt Lancaster, Robert Ryan, Woody Strode, and Jack Palance (Believe it....or not!), you would have thought I would have heard about it before now, but I didn't, and there you go...
Anyway, the film begins with the assemblage of four men by a rich, Texas cattleman named Joe Grant, played by Ralph Bellamy (the old dude who wasn't Don Ameche in the John Landis/Eddie Murphy/Dan Aykroyd movie Trading Places), for the purpose of rescuing his young wife Maria, played by the voluptuous Claudia Cardinale, from the clutches of her kidnapper, a Mexican rebel bandit named Jesus Raza (Palance). Seems Raza has made off with the woman and is now demanding $100,000 for her safe return, an amount Mr. Grant would be willing to pay, except he fears that even after he pays the monies, Raza would still harm his wife. As the men come together with the offer of $10,000 apiece if they're successful, we learn of their particular talents. First there's Henry 'Rico' Fardan (Marvin), a master tactician and someone who actually knows Raza as they served together in the Mexican revolution, followed by Bill Dolworth (Lancaster), who also served with Fardan and Raza, and is an expert with explosives, Hans Ehrengard (Ryan), whose skills involve horse wrangling, and finally Jake Sharp (Strode), an expert with weapons, specifically guns and the bow and arrow, and also an experienced tracker. Given that Raza has a good number of men at his disposal, I'd say maybe close to 200, the task would seem highly unlikely, but the men also must deal with first getting to the camp, which involves trekking through the Mexican desert, where temperatures during the day could fry your face off, while the cold night after the sun drops is nearly enough to freeze your blood, but $10,000 is a lot of money, and the group, being men of honor, did give their word, fully aware of the dangers involved, and the probability of success.
While the story may not be highly original, the elements that make it up work very well to make this a highly enjoyable movie. Marvin is great as the brains behind the operation, carefully planning everything, knowing exactly what he has to work with and also having the confidence in the men to perform their tasks, keeping things simple, and avoiding complexities that would normally foul things up. He pulls off his character well, an intelligent man would understands the value in proper preparation especially when the odds are high. Lancaster is also wonderful, presenting a highly likeable character with color, one whose priorities seem simple enough in money and women, but who also exhibits more depth as the film unfolds. Ryan (a highly under-rated actor, in my opinion) and Strode are also quite good, despite the lack of character development given to Marvin and Lancaster, which isn't a negative as we are given just enough to endear the characters to the audience, but not so much to bog the film down, and all four displayed a level of credibility respective to the skills each possessed. Claudia Cardinale was certainly nice to look at, and she was capable, but if I had to choose a weak link in the film, it would probably be her, but given how well all the other elements of the film worked, this was entirely a minor issue. Now when I heard Jack Palance was going to be playing a Mexican, I had my doubts as I just couldn't see it, but he pulled it off. We didn't see much of him in the first half, but in the last half his character really came to life, giving us more than just a character motivated by greed, but one driven by his ideology, in doing what he has to to survive and further his cause. The expansive desert scenes throughout the film are really beautiful, giving a wonderful backdrop to the story, providing a realism you just can't get shooting on a studio backlot. There were a number of twists and turns within the story, as very little is as it seems, and while some of it was predictable, this did little to take away from the film. I also enjoyed the study of the motivations of the various characters, their questioning of the moralism in past and present actions. The film could have gotten mired within this element, but, as with other elements of the movie, there was just enough present to keep things interesting and add a bit of welcome diversity while not taking away from the overall story. The movie does run just under 2 hours, but rarely slows down, as the excellent direction by Brooks keeps things fairly balanced and moving along at a good pace.
The digitally remastered picture here looks amazing, available in both wide screen and full screen formats, and I thought the audio was also very good, being very crisp and clear. With regards to special features, there is any number of subtitles (including English) available, along with an original theatrical trailer and somewhat comprehensive, yet concise, biographies of the talent, including selected filmographies. Also included on the insert in the DVD case are production notes which detail the people involved, the locations the film was shot, along with information about the original release date and the various awards nominations the film received. All in all an excellent film, maybe not the quintessential western of Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch (1969), but certainly required viewing for fans of western films and certainly worth looking into for anyone just interested in a good film in general.