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The Professionals (1966)

The Professionals has all the elements of a classic western: an all-star cast, excellent production values, interesting characters, sweat-inducing location shooting in Death Valley, and a plot with a few genuine surprises. All these elements, while solid individually, just don’t hang together as well as they should. Don’t get me wrong—it has its moments, but as a whole, it’s unsatisfying.

The plot begins with a simple setup: the new wife of a wealthy man (Ralph Bellamy) has been kidnapped by Mexican revolutionary Jesús Raza (Jack Palance with a tan and an awful Frito Bandito accent), so he offers $100,000 to a team of “professionals” to kidnap her back. These include Rico Fardan (Lee Marvin), a serious-minded weapons expert and general leader of the pack; Bill Dolworth (Burt Lancaster), a skirt-chasing explosives expert whose shady past gives him a personal connection to Raza; Hans Ehrengard (Robert Ryan), a horse wrangler; and Jake Sharp (Woody Strode), a badass with Apache tracking and bow-and-arrow skills.

What follows is basically a mash-up of The Magnificent Seven and Ocean’s Eleven: a Wild West heist to retrieve Mrs. Maria Grant (Claudia Cardinale, not dubbed for once) from her captor. The heist sequence is engaging and incredibly well done. The only problem is, it’s too short, taking up about 10 minutes of the film. The preparation for and execution of the heist goes by quickly enough to be disappointing. Writer/director Richard Brooks spends a slow hour with the professionals moving through Mexico toward their destination. In between lengthy gunfights with Mexican banditos, Brooks takes his time establishing the characters, their contributions to the team, and the minutiae of what they do. The attention to detail would be admirable in a more exciting film, but the characters all seem bored with each other and the work they do. This isn’t necessarily the fault of Brooks or the actors—this is a professional crew of people who know each other, know how to work together, and have pulled similar jobs before. The aloofness toward each other and the complexities of the plot fits the characters, but it doesn’t make them engaging.

Aside from establishing the characters, very little of what occurs in the first hour pays off in the second. The second half is generally more engaging than the first, focusing on the messy aftermath of the heist and throwing in unexpected plot twists to keep things interesting. Still, Raza doesn’t have the screen time or character development to work as an effective villain. Hell, the sultry/trampy Chiquita (Marie Gomez) has more depth than Raza does. Brooks should have done a better job of building him up in the audience’s mind, making us fear him long before he makes an appearance. Early references to his skills as a soldier don’t cast that needed pall over his character, making the climactic shootout feel more like an unneeded distraction than the clashing of titans.

Maybe it’s my fault. I go into every western expecting it to blow my mind the way Once Upon a Time in the West did, but few films (western or otherwise) live up to that towering cinematic achievement. Whatever the reason, The Professionals just didn’t work for me. Fans of Brooks (and Lancaster) would do better to check out Elmer Gantry. It’s not a western, but it’s fantastic.

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