The brawny “assemble a team” action picture goes way back, probably predating “Seven Samurai, and is with us still. But its heyday had to be the 1960s, when “The Magnificent Seven” and “The Guns of Navarone,” “The Dirty Dozen” and “The Italian Job” and others chiseled the genre’s conventions in stone.
Richard Brooks’ “The Professionals” (1966) leaned on the tropes, archetypes and “mission/quest” plot as hard as any of them, often too hard. But it distinguishes itself in several ways that let it endure. The violence is brutal. And the cast is so boiling over with charisma that Lee Marvin could take a back seat, Robert Ryan didn’t have to break a sweat, Woody Strode could stand out while staying largely silent (the casting was “progressive,” but not that progressive), and Jack Palance and Burt Lancaster could grin, chew the scenery and devour the tough-guy talk that is this film’s calling card, decades after its release.
“Well, I’ll be damned…” “Most of us are.”
The assemble-the-team business already had its lazy shortcuts, and writer-director Brooks, Oscar winning screenwriter of “Elmer Gantry,” later an Oscar nominated director for “In Cold Blood,” grabbed every one of those he could. Ralph Bellamy is the rich man rounding up “professionals” to retrieve his wife, kidnapped and taken to Mexico in the late 1910s. The character recites each specialist’s resume, “Navarone” fashion, to introduce them to each other and the viewer.
The “tracker” (Strode) will pick up the trail, the horse handler (Ryan) will keep them going, the ex-military man (Marvin) will lead and plan the violence, and his Mexican-experience compadre (Lancaster) will handle explosives.
Because if there’s one thing that changes the odds in a firefight in a B-Western, even one with an A-list cast and director, it’s dynamite.
That team will take ransom money south to where the revolutionary Raza (Palance) resides, holding the trophy bride (Claudia Cardinale) and awaiting the payoff.
“Captain Jesus Raza. Jesus, what a name for the bloodiest cutthroat in Mexico!”
Brooks was an Oscar-nominated screenwriter long before he collected one for directing. The man had an ear for hard-boiled, quotable dialogue. He gives his “Elmer Gantry” star Lancaster most of the best lines, but not nearly all of them.
“So what else is on your mind besides hundred-proof women, ninety-proof whiskey, ‘n’ fourteen-carat gold?”
“Amigo, you just wrote my epitaph!”
“You go to hell!” “Yes ma’am, I’m on my way.”
“Certain women have a way of changing boys into men and some men back into boys.”
The cast is generally in fine form, with Marvin setting us up for “The Dirty Dozen” and “The Big Red One,” ensemble pieces where he was the face and voice of grizzled authority and Lancaster landing his punchlines with particular panache.
Brooks never specialized in one genre, and had his share of misses (“Lord Jim”) to go along with the hits. That’s one reason he’s not mentioned as one of the great filmmakers of his era, and considering his adaptations as writer-director — “Blackboard Jungle,” “Looking for Mr. Goodbar,” “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and just as a screenwriter (“Key Largo,” “Elmer Gantry,” “The Brothers Karamazov”) — that’s a crying shame.
He had the good fortune of working with great directors of photography and the biggest stars of his day. And if his pictures aren’t showy, they’re memorable for the performances and the distinctly crackling dialogue, either grabbed from the source novel or play, or cooked up by the man himself.
“Yes, sir. In my case an accident of birth. But you, sir, you’re a self-made man.“
Rating: PG-13 for violence and nudity
Cast: Lee Marvin, Burt Lancaster, Woody Strode, Robert Ryan, Claudia Cardinale, Ralph Bellamy and Jack Palance.
Credits: Scripted and directed by Richard Brooks, based on a novel by Frank O’Rourke.
Running time: 1:57