Before The Wild Bunch
, there was The Professionals
, Richard Brooks's marvelous ode to friendship, loyalty, and disillusionment. It may not have the stylistic bravado or fatalistic doom of the legendary Sam Peckinpah film, but Brooks's storytelling is simple and steady and just as insightful. The difference is Brooks is a lot more optimistic. Lee Marvin and Burt Lancaster are buddies who have drifted into oblivion after fighting together in the Mexican Revolution. Marvin, the principled loyalist and munitions expert, lost his wife and his heart. Lancaster, the dynamite expert and unprincipled adventurer, keeps losing his pants. They team up with wrangler Robert Ryan and archer Woody Strode to rescue the beguiling Claudia Cardinale, who has been kidnapped by their old revolutionary buddie Jack Palance. So it's back into bloody Mexico they go on a "mission of mercy" for railroad tycoon Ralph Bellamy, who's paying handsomely for the return of his wife.
But nothing is what it seems in this exciting, existential adventure, which was beautifully shot by Conrad Hall. Sarcastic quips, philosophical musings, and heart-rending reversals underlie Brooks's humanistic sentiments. These are tired, world-weary men who somehow find the strength and the will to pull together for the sake of love and commitment. Through it all, Brooks seems to be lamenting a decline in professionalism much deeper than his story. He's decrying Hollywood and the society at large, anticipating Peckinpah's later strategy. --Bill Desowitz