"Well, I'll be damned."
"Most of us are."
'The Professionals' is a man's movie through and through. On the great cinematic pendulum, at the opposite end of the arc from that genre known affectionately as "chick flicks" reside the films of actors like Lee Marvin, Burt Lancaster, Robert Ryan, and Woody Strode. These were legendary Hollywood tough guys who'd made their careers in war movies and Westerns, usually playing hard-bitten, tough-talking men who take no guff and aren't afraid to get their hands dirty. In 1966, director Richard Brooks ('Lord Jim', 'In Cold Blood') brought the four together for an ensemble Western celebrating their established screen personas. The move might be considered typecasting, but there's no sense messing with a formula when it works so well.
In the early 20th Century, a few years after the Mexican Revolution, a rich Texas oil baron (Ralph Bellamy) hires a team of four mercenaries to rescue his wife, who's been kidnapped by a Mexican rebel leader named Raza and dragged across the border. The men are chosen for their reputations as fighters, their skill as strategists, and their proficiency with weapons of all sorts. The designated leader (Marvin) and demolitions expert (Lancaster) are also intimately familiar with Raza, having fought beside him in the war. They may respect the man and even consider him a friend, but these are professionals. They don't let sentiment or emotion cloud their judgement. They've been paid to do a job, and that's all there is to it. Or so they believe, at least until making their way to Raza's compound, busting in, and learning the truth about this so-called kidnapping.
In many ways, 'The Professionals' is a classic oater, with dusty prairies, dangerous bandits, and plenty of fightin', shootin', and dynamitin' action. The film is deliberately paced in a way that may try the patience of younger audiences, and the action scenes are a bit dull by modern standards, but the machismo, swagger, and testosterone on display have a timeless appeal. The performances (especially Marvin's) are very entertaining, and the script is loaded with razor sharp dialogue. In set-up and structure, the picture resembles the John Ford classic 'The Searchers' more than a bit, but diverges in theme significantly in the second half, which develops a surprising amount of moral ambiguity. The relationships between the "good guys" and "bad guys" become unexpectedly complicated.
Unfortunately, some aspects of the film have really not aged very well. Chief among these is its perpetuation of the "dirty Mexican" stereotype, which is quite uncomfortable to watch when our heroes face off against some filthy, ignorant, and conniving banditos. When they finally get to him, Raza is played by Jack Palance. Putting a white actor in makeup to play an ethnic role was not at all unusual at the time, and to be fair Palance's performance is much less offensive than it could have been (in fact, the character turns out to be rather sympathetic), but the whole thing grates against modern sensibilities.
If you can set that aside, 'The Professionals' has a lot of entertainment value to offer. Though perhaps not the greatest of classic Westerns, the film is loaded with movie star appeal, has great macho byplay between the characters, and has an unusually complex script for the genre. All things considered, this is one good old fashioned man's movie that's held up pretty well.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Professionals' comes to Blu-ray from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, who have once again programmed their disc to automatically open with annoying promos and trailers before the main menu (yes, I fully intend to complain about this in every review until they stop doing it).
The majority of the movie's soundtrack is spoken in English, but selected scenes have Spanish dialogue. English subtitles appear by default during these sequences, half-in and half-out of the movie picture, making them unreadable on a 2.35:1 projection screen. Thanks for nothing, Sony.
'The Professionals' received an Oscar nomination for Conrad Hall's stately 2.35:1 cinematography, which is reproduced in this 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer with a mixture of both strengths and weaknesses. In the positives, the film has a dusty color scheme with some striking hues subtly mixed in for effect, and every shade is crisply rendered here. Mild film grain is adequately digitized without turning noisy. The contrast range is well balanced in both the bright daytime scenes and the frequent day-for-night shots, which have plenty of shadow detail. While the film rarely has the three-dimensional "pop" sought after by home theater junkies, close-ups and medium shots exhibit a pleasing amount of detail and film-like texture.
Unfortunately, undercutting these attributes is the nearly constant presence of edge halo artifacts throughout the movie. The problem is pretty ghastly at first, with bright ringing outlines around any object or person highlighted against the sky. It tones down after a while, but never entirely goes away. Wide shots are also lacking in detail and clarity in comparison to closer shots.
The movie's original monaural soundtrack has been given a 5.1 remixing, presented here in lossless Dolby TrueHD format (the mono mix has not been provided). Maurice Jarre's score is the primary beneficiary, spread across the front soundstage broadly and loudly. Often too loudly, as the dialogue is frequently overwhelmed. Although technically encoded as 5.1, only the front three channels get any action. If there was any surround or subwoofer activity during the picture's 117-minute runtime, I missed it.
Gunshots are hollow and anemic, and dynamite explosions terribly thin. The big action scenes tend to collapse into an indistinct mass of noise. Certainly, one is tempted to blame the age of the movie and the monaural source elements, but there's a decided lack of analog warmth to this coldly digital audio remaster, and I'm reminded once again why I wish studios would just leave older soundtracks alone rather than try to remix them all into 5.1 razzle dazzle.
The Blu-ray carries over all of the important features from the 2005 Special Edition DVD release, but they don't amount to much.
For the guys out there whose girlfriends or wives have forced them to endure one too many chick flicks, 'The Professionals' is the sort of classic man's movie that should provide a nice palette cleanser. The Blu-ray edition has pretty good picture quality, iffy sound, and some perfunctory bonus features. I don't know that a purchase is needed, but at the very least it makes a worthy rental.