Judge Dennis Prince finds nothing amateur about the talent assembled for this excellent character western of decades gone by.
"It would take a battalion at least a month but a few daring men—specialists—could do it in one bold swift stroke."
Once again, Sony digs deep into Columbia Pictures' back catalog to revive this excellent western. Although it dates back to 1966, the Best Screenplay nominated film is fun to watch and is given an excellent restorative treatment for this impressive Blu-ray edition.
Facts of the Case
It's 1917, the time of the Mexican Revolution, and old friends cross paths, team up with new compadres, and put their unique skills to work for the sake of, well, money. Texas oil baron J.W. Grant (Ralph Bellamy, The Wolf Man) has handpicked an elite team of specialists that can recover his kidnapped wife, Maria (Claudia Cardinale, The Hell with Heroes) from the clutches of the ruthless Mexican mercenary, Jesus Raza (Jack Palance, The Desperadoes). While such a job would normally require the firepower and fortitude of an entire army, Grant knows that he only needs weapons specialist "Rico" Fardan (Lee Marvin, Paint Your Wagon), superior wrangler Hans Ehrengard (Robert Ryan, The Dirty Dozen), and master bowman Jake Sharp (Woody Strode, Shalako). Rico, however, knows an explosive expert will seal the deal and negotiates the release of long-time friend, the incarcerated Bill Dolworth (Burt Lancaster, Airport). The four, promised $10,000 each for the return of Grant's wife, set off into the arid and unforgiving Mexican desert. Each encounter with small groups of Mexican desperadoes assures the "professionals" they're hot on the trail of Raza, honing their collaborative skills as they overcome their would-be assailants along the way. When they find Raza's camp and locate the kidnapped Maria, however, they discover all is not what was expected and matters of present allegiances and past loyalties complicate the mission for all involved.
Here's an example of a fun and entertaining "western ensemble." Director Richard Brooks (Elmer Gantry, In Cold Blood) guides the fast-paced film with a steady and confident narrative that draws us in from the opening frames. Knowing he has a well recognized and highly competent cast at hand, he allows us time to celebrate the star power yet immediately steeps us into the characterization that truly drives the film. Each key actor is allowed to play to their strengths in a way that's reasonable and believable to their role. Lee Marvin is steady and steely, Burt Lancaster is seemingly cavalier yet always calculating, Robert Ryan is competent yet compassionate, and Woody Strode is quietly unassuming as he trains his eye on his next revolutionary target. Jack Palance plays Raza with aplomb and turns out a most engaging performance. And, of course, the voluptuous Claudia Cardinale is fetching yet fatal if you should dare to drop your guard in the midst of her disarming beauty. Brooks directs them all with ease, apparently, and maintains a rugged and gritty feel that perfectly suits the story. His nomination for the Best Director of 1967 for The Professionals was well deserved, to be sure.
Now on Blu-ray disc, The Professionals reminds us how good a forty year old film can look when remastered with care and proper regard. While the format has turned out a few less-than-spectacular catalog releases, this one, delivered by way of a 1080p / AVC encode, is exemplary of the potential to infuse new life in an old film. The image, presented in the original Panavision 2.35:1 widescreen aspect ratio, is excellent in that it perfectly recreates a film-like look for the picture, the original film grain visible in a pleasing way that gives it welcome texturing. Although the production design is a bit muted (this was set in the dusty Mexican wilderness), the landscape takes on a vividness that is often stunning. Detail springs forth that reveals every sedimentary layer and fine sandiness of the Death Valley locations, sometimes drawing our view away from the stars on screen. There are no compression artifacts to be seen and the source material is near impeccable. If there's a downside to the presentation, it comes by way of the Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track. It begins with promise of a lushly enhanced soundstage, Maurice Jarre's score leaping from all channels, and good discrete effects as evidenced by the steam locomotive chugging across the screen. The dialog is well centered and intelligible and all seems good yet when explosions and gunshots erupt, the track fails to deliver low-end punch nor does it offer high-end crackle to truly support the excellent on screen action. It's not a bad track by any means but it certainly fails to perform as we have come to expect.
Extras on this disc are reasonable but not top tier. They begin with a 6-minute look back at the picture with The Professionals—A Classic. Here, director Martin Campbell (Casino Royale, 2006) offers a fond tribute to Brooks' achievement and is joined by actress Claudia Cardinale and the late Burt Lancaster's daughter, Joanna. Next up is the 12-minute Burt Lancaster: A Portrait. Naturally, daughter Joanna hosts this respectful look at her father's film legacy including a reminder that the man, a former circus acrobat, did his own stunt work. Lastly, the 21-minute Memories of The Professionals showcases surviving star Claudia Cardinale as she recounts her experiences on the production. Original cinematographer Conrad Hall also provides anecdotal contributions about the shoot. And, Marie Gomez ("Chikita" from the film) is also on hand to provide her insights to the filming experience.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
If you're looking for a cardboard cutout western full of rootin' and shootin' and endless horse chases, The Professionals might not be your particular shot of whiskey. This is more of a character study that utilizes the backdrop of the 1917 Mexican Revolution for juxtaposition. The characters are excellent, though, buoyed by adept actors, and culminating in a fun twist that makes perfect sense in the end.
Even if you're not a fan of westerns, The Professionals offers such a wonder time with some truly colorful characters that it becomes immediately difficult to resist. On Blu-ray, this emerges as one of the better examples of how the high-definition format can helps us become reacquainted with excellent moviemaking from decades past.
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• "The Professionals: A Classic"
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