This is what you want from a western. Old school, no bull shit ass kickers, kicking ass in no bull shit, old school fashion. After westerns evolved from the cheese of cowboys and Indians, before they became a post modern comment on stuff and junk, they were dirty, sweaty, smelly grime fests of man on man action that were only slightly as gay as that sentence sounds. They were movies like The Professionals.
The titular professionals are weapons expert Rico (Lee Marvin), explosives expert Dolworth (Burt Lancaster), horse wrangler Ehrengard (Robert Ryan), and expert tracker Jake (Woody Strode). Assembled by Rico, they’re hired by ranch baron Grant (Ralph Belamy), to save his young trophy wife Maria (Claudia Cardinale). She’s been kidnapped by Mexican revolutionary Raza (Jack Palance) and Rico’s ragtag group are in for a sweet 10 grand each if they can bring her back safely.
From a really fun intro of each of the four professionals, to getting their rescue assignment, to beginning the search for Maria, The Professionals gets all the setup out of the way super quick, so it can get to more of what the movie is really about, what makes a man good or bad. In this world good men are forced to do terrible things and bad men aren’t always who they appear to be. This isn’t just about cheap twists and character reveals, it’s pretty raw, heavy stuff, disguised as a by the numbers western.
Lancaster’s character might be the womanising cad with a heart of gold, but The Professionals makes sure we know he’s done some bad things in is past. They may have been done out of necessity, but Lancaster makes sure we know he’ll always carry some serious guilt with him. Marvin plays Rico as a cold, worn down shell who’s seen some terrible shit, more than likely committed some terrible shit, and now he’s convinced not caring about anyone is the only way to make it through the day. But he also brings enough heart to the role that it’s believable when his inevitable grand moment of redemption comes.
What I loved most about The Professionals is its reliance on leading performances by the kinds of leading men who just don’t exist anymore. Tough guys today always have to have some sort tragic back story or vulnerability that explains their cold exterior. Tough guys in the 80s were all about muscles and implausible acts of physical strength and prowess. But in the 50s and 60s, tough guys were played by dudes who seemed like legit, no bull shit tough guys in real life. Men like Kirk Douglas, Robert Mitchum, and yes, Burt Lancaster, Lee Marvin and Jack Palance.
When Grant calls Rico a bastard, Rico replies, “Yes, Sir. In my case an accident of birth. But you, Sir, you’re a self-made man”. That’s a simple, to the point fuck you that no one in Hollywood could deliver today. A leading man like George Clooney or Brad Pitt would make it too self aware and charming, and no action meat head could ever deliver it convincingly. With Marvin, you feel like he earned the right to say that through real life ass kickings off camera, as much as he did through building a reputation as an on screen hard ass.