It makes a certain kind of sense to impose winking machismo on your average Western-loving audience. In a genre so often mulled over by its own seriousness and gun-toting self-regard, its toughness almost hedonistic in its revelry, it’s nice to be bombarded by larky adventurousness not doused by sunburnt graveness. So while I half-expected 1966’s The Professionals to instead be a typical Spaghetti Western based on the presence of Claudia Cardinale (of Once Upon a Time in the West stardom), I consider it to be a welcome surprise that it’s humorous and explosive rather than dusty and spitefully misanthropic.
It’s an all-star genre picture with much in common with buddy pictures a la Ocean’s Eleven and The Italian Job, in which charismatic groups of morally ambivalent anti-heroes go to great lengths to grant the wishes of either a well-paying employer or themselves. In The Professionals, motivation is an effect of the former, plus $1,000 apiece for those involved (big money in the 1910s it takes place in). Tasked by a wealthy rancher (Ralph Bellamy) to save his sexy young wife (Cardinale) from an alleged kidnapper (Jack Palance), a team of criminals (Burt Lancaster, Robert Ryan, Woody Strode) led by Rico Fardan (Lee Marvin), a hotshot gunslinger, embarks on a bullet ridden quest to get the girl.
Expectedly, there’s a good chance that that girl doesn’t much want to be saved — it’s hard to trust a self-serving old man with a trophy wife in the first place — and The Professionals, punchy and stubborn, is driven by jolts such as this one. Because it’s an adventure that knows something about the art of the double-cross and the art of the gunfight, our shifting loyalties only add to the movie’s warm-heartedly rugged spirit. Written and directed by Richard Brooks, it’s popcorn entertainment minus the unnecessary extra butter, to-the-point but never insulting to our intelligence nor our expectations. It’s one of the high points of his career, and is definitively among the defining films of its likable ensemble.
When you peruse what makes The Professionals work best, though, you’ll notice that it isn’t just the cast doing the heavy lifting (though they do a lot). Also key to the film’s ultimately remarkable success is how well it conjoins masculine wit, ballsy action, and convincing locale. It deserves to be immodest, cheap even — I always suspect movies with all-star casts to be more hungry for money than respect on the part of audiences and critics — but The Professionals is gritty and smart, an excellent instance of the wonders professional action can do for the most escape driven caper seekers of unpretentious viewers. B+