The Fab Four go in Search of Maria
"The Professionals" is one of the smartest westerns I have ever watched, I don't mean just in having an interesting storyline but also in the way Richard Brooks directs. Consider when "The Professionals" was made, it was a time when the popularity of the western was coming to an end and so rather than just deliver a lot of cliche western action Brooks allows us to focus on the characters, smart when you have a seriously strong but small cast. Add to this the storyline which sees an elite group of cowboys assembled for a mission to retrieve a kidnapped wife it is different to your normal western storyline. But it then throws in a twist so this mission is not as simple as first seems and so we have a western which an interesting storyline, a strong cast with strong characters, plus plenty of action and all this combines to create a western which in some ways is similar to "The Magnificent Seven".
When Mr. Grant's (Ralph Bellamy) wife Maria (Claudia Cardinale - The Magnificent Showman) is kidnapped by Mexican mercenary Raza (Jack Palance) he sets about hiring some men to retrieve her. Hand picking Rico (Lee Marvin), Hans (Robert Ryan)and Jake (Woody Strode)for their individual skills be it with guns, horses and bows he is persuaded by Rico to also hire Bill (Burt Lancaster - Gunfight at the O.K. Corral), an explosives man who currently resides in jail. Heading across country these 4 men follow a trail to Raza, honing their skills as they deal with minor skirmishes together. But when they finally reach Raza's hideout and see Maria they realise maybe all is not as it seems.
The biggest thing which director Richard Brooks gets right is not to rush through things and by that he allows us to get to know each of the four specially selected cowboys. They are all very different characters be it the icy cold Rico, the more charming Bill, the compassionate Hans or the unassuming Jake. And so for the first third of "The Professionals" we get to know these four men, how they know each other and what their skills are. But none of it is forced, in fact we learn all about their skills through a nice story progression which sees them following the trail to Maria Grant and dealing with various bandits along the way.
In a way "The Professionals" is a bit like "The Magnificent Seven" as the storyline sees these 4 men hired by the wealthy Mr. Grant to help him right a wrong. And whilst they may not be defending a town it is their combined skills which allows them to attack the fortress where Bandit Raza resides with Mr. Grant's wife Maria. And it is exciting stuff as we watch them plan their attack, be it setting up a rock fall for when they escape or placing dynamite on the arrows for expert bow man Jake to fire in to the fortress. And the actual excitement is even better when they do attack with huge explosions and plenty of gunfire.
But then we get the twist and the twist is that whilst Maria maybe married to Mr. Grant she certainly wasn't kidnapped by Raza. And so having recaptured Maria from Raza we then get the journey back which sees are 4 experts have to deal with Raza and his men chasing them across the desert. Which leads to more action and some spectacular action at that which plays upon the fact that both Rico and Bill once fought alongside Raza and his men.
I suppose to be honest "The Professionals" isn't that unique, it really is just an action movie, a bit of western escapism with 4 heroes on a dangerous mission. But whilst there are other similar westerns they are not that common and so it does feel different to the norm. And because director Richard Brooks allows the focus to be on the characters and the action it never feels bogged down by the mundane. Even the scenes which see these expert cowboys battling the elements and nature is exciting because Brooks makes the location feel alive as dangerous as anyone of the bandits who are on their tail.
But in many ways what makes "The Professionals" so good is the star power be it Lee Marvin as the icy cool Rico or Robert Ryan as the more compassionate Hans who as a wrangler is not the lethal killer that the others are. Every single actor gets their moment to shine be it Jack Palance as Raza or Woody Strode as Jake and when the men of the movie are not delivering strong characters you have the sexy and feisty Claudia Cardinale as Maria to entertain. But whilst every single actor gets their moment to shine it is Burt Lancaster as Bill Dolworth who stands out thanks to him being the cavalier charmer, the man with an eye for the ladies and the confidence to flirt with them even when it is risky.
What this all boils down to is that "The Professionals" is a supremely entertaining western with good direction, a good cast, good characters and great action. It is also smart whilst actually not being that original and even now seems like a breath of fresh air within the western genre because in many ways this is more of an action movie than anything. For fans of westerns "The Professionals" is a must watch and for those who think old westerns were all the same it will be an experience to change your mind.