The Professionals (1966)

The ProfessionalsWhen I think of men-on-a-mission movies, I typically think of war movies, maybe some adventure and heist flicks among the bunch. I think of movies like The Guns of Navarone, The Dirty Dozen and Kelly’s Heroes among others. The best one though? Of all genres, it’s a western, and it’s a dandy. Maybe the perfect adventure movie, it’s 1966’s The Professionals.

It’s 1917 and the Mexican Revolution is still raging strong all over the country. Along the U.S./Mexico border, four men, Rico Fardan (Lee Marvin), Bill Dolworth (Burt Lancaster), Hans Ehrengard (Robert Ryan) and Jake Sharp (Woody Strode), have been brought together to perform a dangerous mission. The little group, each of them a specialist in one way or another, has been hired by rancher and oil tycoon Joe Grant (Ralph Bellamy) to ride deep into Mexico and rescue his wife, Maria (Claudia Cardinale), who’s been kidnapped by a bandit and revolutionary, Jesus Raza (Jack Palance). Maria is believed to be stashed away in a hacienda in the mountains with Raza’s small army standing guard. This quartet is the best of the best with few equals, but even this job seems to be too much, especially if they haven’t been told the whole truth of what they’re riding into. Can they pull off the job?

One of Hollywood’s all-time best directors and writers, Richard Brooks earned 8 Oscar nominations over his distinguished career. He may have more respected movies, but ‘Professionals’ is easily his most fun and most entertaining (for me at least). It’s one of my favorites, and I always enjoy catching up with it. Mutually appreciated by both audiences and critics, ‘Professionals’ is one of the best westerns of the 1960’s and really, one of the best westerns of all-time. It picked up two Oscar nominations, one for Brooks’ directing and one for his script. Not a flaw in sight. Sit back and enjoy this one, hopefully with a big tub of popcorn.

Let’s get the boring technical stuff out of the way. Boring, but necessary. Brooks earned a Best Director nomination for blending a movie that features the technical, storytelling, characters, humor, action and visual look. With filming locations in the Valley of Fire, Death Valley, along with Nevada, California and Sonora, the visual appeal is evident. On the trail thanks to some key landmarks, you’re always aware of where you are. As well, the traveling and action scenes are aided immensely by composer Maurice Jarre‘s score, especially the main theme. Listen HERE. Throw it all together, and you feel like you’re right there with our Professionals in the sweaty, sun-baked desert where bandits and revolutionaries are there behind every rock waiting to ambush you.

The cast is pretty insane in terms of pure talent and star power, but with each repeated viewing, it always comes back to the script for me. Adapting a western novel called ‘A Mule for the Marquesa,’ Brooks transformed a good book into a great movie. This is a story that loves it characters, both the good and bad, and more importantly, knows them well. The script absolutely crackles, Lancaster and Marvin especially relishing delivering one memorable one-liner after another. I can’t think of too many westerns that have the ability to tread that fine line between serious action and a sense of humor. Read IMDB’s memorable quotes HERE. What’s impressive? Even out of context, they still can put a smile on your face, give you a good laugh. When you actually see Lancaster, Marvin and Co. deliver said lines? Oh my, you’re in for a treat.

I love a good men-on-a-mission movie, and this one belongs right at the top with The Magnificent Seven, The Guns of Navarone and The Dirty Dozen as my favorites. Seriously…Lancaster, Marvin, Ryan and Strode…oh, and Palance, Cardinale and Bellamy! That sound you hear is my head exploding from awesomeness. Brooks’ script introduces our characters with lightning-fast ease and we get to know them in that quick flash. Marvin’s Fardan is an ex-soldier, a leader, an organizer and a planner, Ryan’s Ehrengard a horse wrangler, a cowboy, Strode’s Jake an expert tracker/scout and specialist with bow and arrow, and last but not least, Lancaster’s Dolworth is a mercenary, a philosophizing dynamite expert. That is a ridiculously talented cast with a lousy script, but combined with Brooks’ script, the end result is some of the most memorable western characters ever with a story to boot. You can’t pass that up now, can you?!?

When I think of Burt Lancaster and Lee Marvin working together here, it puts a smile on my face. Their Bill Dolworth and Rico Fardan are the heart of the movie, mercenaries, soldiers and adventurers who are good friends who have worked together in the past, including previously in the Mexican Revolution. They too have a history with Palance’s Raza, making their job a touch more difficult. What the script and actors do so effortlessly is bring these characters to life. They’re tough, rough-hewn men who live by their word and their hard-fought ability to survive. They fight because they’re good at it, and maybe, just maybe, they like it a little bit. Their one-on-one scenes are some of the most memorable in the entire movie. When you throw the always reliable Robert Ryan and Woody Strode into the mix, you’re in for a treat.

Okay, we need an actor in the mid 1960’s to play a Mexican revolutionary….naturally, it’s Jack Palance! His Raza though is an underrated character, an equal to our Professionals, a somewhat disillusioned fighter who fights on because he loves Mexico, the people, and wants those in power out.  Then there is Claudia Cardinale, maybe the most beautiful woman to ever grace the screen. Her Maria has some tricks up her sleeves as we’re introduced to her about halfway through. Bellamy is perfect in his part, beginning and end, as the worrying Joe Grant (or is he…). Also look for Jorge Martinez de HoyosJoe De Santis and Rafael Bertrand in key supporting parts. In a scene-stealing part, Marie Gomez plays Chiquita, one of Raza’s soldiers who has a history with Lancaster’s Bill.

What’s funny about ‘Professionals’ is that it isn’t an action-heavy story. Yes, there’s gunfights, chases and some memorable sequences, but it isn’t a 2-hour action scene. It’s the better for it. We get to know our characters really well in quick scenes featuring Brooks’ snappy dialogue. When the action does come, is it ever worth it, especially the pre-dawn attack on Raza’s hacienda deep in the mountains. Loud and chaotic, it is a gem. The other action is on a smaller-scale, tightly-edited firefights in claustrophobic canyons. So if there isn’t an overabundance of action, who cares? The general tone of the movie aids that cause. It’s not just a western. It’s also a buddy flick, a heist movie, a chase story, a love story, a history lesson of sorts, and with a bit of a twist mystery in the second half of a 117-minute feature film.

They don’t come along much better than this. One of those perfect action-adventure movies, one that’s hard to poke holes in. A phenomenal cast, a memorable script, and all you can ask for in a western. A true classic, for fans of the genre and even those who aren’t.

The Professionals (1966): ****/****

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Young Guns (1988)

Young GunsOne of the most iconic (maybe infamous is more apt a description), Billy the Kid is synonymous with the American west. His bloody, bullet-shattered life has been a frequent source for films, not too many of them actually any good. The odd exception? A 1988 western starring several up-and-coming stars and several established genre stars, it’s Young Guns.

A young gunfighter with a growing reputation, William H. Bonney (Emilio Estevez) is drifting along and on the run when he’s taken in by an English rancher, John Tunstall (Terence Stamp) in New Mexico. Tunstall has taken in a handful of young drifters who work his ranch and protect his cattle, but he finds himself facing the Santa Fe Ring, a group of cattle ranchers and businessmen trying to control the territory, including their leader, a cattleman named L.G. Murphy (Jack Palance). Things finally come to a head when Murphy-backed gunfighters callously gun down Tunstall. Bonney, also known as Billy the Kid, and Tunstall’s other men, the Regulators, are deputized to bring the men to justice. The Santa Fe Ring will not go quietly though, forcing Billy to take drastic action.

From The Left-Handed Gun to Chisum, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid to The Outlaw, Billy the Kid has been the leading character in one western after another. The craziest thing? The 1980s western aimed at a younger audience…is one of the best! It’s probably right behind the 1970 John Wayne western Chisum. The history actually sticks pretty close to the facts of the Lincoln County War with only a few departures here and there. The look of the film feels spot-on (from the wardrobe to the New Mexico shooting locations), and the story doesn’t pull any punches, sticking to the dark, bloody source material.

Playing one of the American’s west most notable figures, Estevez is a scene-stealer as Billy the Kid. Past portrayals of Billy range from raging psychopath to petulant teenager, but Estevez finds a niche somewhere in between. His Billy is lightning quick with a gun, intelligent and always thinking…but he’s a little crazy, a little unhinged with an ever-growing ego. Estevez’s crazy, cackling laugh when Billy’s truly enjoying himself (usually after shooting someone) is downright creepy. But like so many western characters (anti-heroes or otherwise), Billy has a code he lives by, sticking with his fellow Regulators (his ‘Pals’) through — mostly — thick and thin. A solid, scene-stealing lead role.

The other Young Guns, the Regulators include Doc Scurlock (Kiefer Sutherland), Chavez y Chavez (Lou Diamond Phillips), Dick Brewer (Charlie Sheen), Dirty Steve (Dermot Mulroney) and Charlie Bowdre (Casey Siemaszko). We get little snippets of background as the story develops, but not much (Scurlock’s relationship with a young Chinese woman flops), so it would have been nice to learn a little more about the characters, all of them actual historical characters. With a touch of a younger, hipper Magnificent Seven though, the chemistry among Billy and the Regulators carries the movie as the Lincoln County War develops and grows bloodier and bloodier.

Hamming it up like only he can, Palance looks to be enjoying himself as the villainous Murphy. He’s not a developed, deep character. He’s just a sneering, intimidating villain so there’s that! Terry O’Quinn is excellent as Alex McSween, a lawyer who sides with the Regulators against the Santa Fe Ring. Western fans should also get a kick out of small parts for Brian Keith as a weathered bounty hunter and Patrick Wayne as Pat Garrett.

Clocking in at 106 minutes, ‘Guns’ follows an episodic story, bouncing along from one real-life incident to another. It makes for a somewhat slow, sometimes disjointed feel, but a quick gunfight always helps to get the blood and adrenaline flowing! Billy usually instigates the gunplay, all building to an impressive final shootout as the Regulators show down with the Santa Fe Ring and some Gatling Gun-toting cavalry. It’s a fun western with a cool cast and some always interesting history. It also produced an equally worthwhile sequel two years later. A surprisingly positive western that is definitely worth a watch.

Young Guns (1988): ***/****

Attack (1956)

Attack 1956As long as there have been wars, there have been anti-war films. When I think of waves of anti-war films though, I start to think of the late 1960’s, especially in the U.S. as Americans grew disillusioned with the Vietnam War. But how about an early anti-war effort from the 1950’s that was ahead of its time in so many ways? Here’s 1956’s Attack.

It’s 1944 and Allied forces are advancing all over Europe on German forces. One infantry unit is dealing with a command issue though, especially as the fighting intensifies. Lt. Joe Costa (Jack Palance) is a platoon commander in an infantry company commanded by the cowardly Captain Cooney (Eddie Albert). In a recent engagement, Cooney’s outright cowardice and indecision cost the lives of an entire squad when he refused to commit a reserve to the fighting. As Costa tries to decide what to do, the Germans attack all along the front (the battle of the Bulge), pushing the American forces back. Can Costa hold his men together, or will Cooney’s inability to command cost the lives of even more men?

From director Robert Aldrich, this 1956 World War II movie is an oft-forgotten gem. Based off a Norman Brooks play, it never gets the credit it deserves for the truly dark, honest look it takes at war. These are normal, everyday soldiers trying to get through the war unscathed. These aren’t super-men single-handedly winning the war. Their commander’s general ineptitude at everything he does has some of the men, especially Costa, considering shooting Cooney because no one in the command system will do anything. The commanders are either inept or self-serving while the enlisted men simply want to survive the war.

In a career that featured one memorable tough guy performance after another, Palance delivers one of his best here. His Lt. Joe Costa is as tough as hell and an ideal platoon commander, but he’s human too. After years of fighting, all the death is starting to wear on him, especially when there was potential to stop those deaths. His Costa becomes obsessed with stopping Cooney, no matter how and no matter the consequences. Eddie Albert is frighteningly good as the inept Cooney, a company commander with some serious emotional issues, from alcoholism to daddy issues to fear of failure to…well, just about anything you can think of. Two amazingly different but incredibly memorable parts.

Aldrich had a knack for assembling some damn good casts, and though ‘Attack’ doesn’t have a ton of star power, it’s a damn good cast. In one of his first major roles, Lee Marvin is a scene-stealer as Lt. Colonel Clyde Barrett, the battalion commander using Cooney for his pull back home politically. William Smithers is excellent as Lt. Woodruff, Cooney’s executive officer caught in between his commander and the men in the company. The men in Costa’s platoon include Richard Jaeckel, Robert Strauss, John Shepodd, Jim Goodwin and a scene-stealing Buddy Ebsen as Sgt. Tolliver. Also look quick in the opening scene for Strother Martin as an infantry soldier and Peter van Eyck as an SS officer.

Considering the film’s rather dark subject matter and the timing in the Happy Days-esque 1950’s, it’s not surprising that the US Army wanted nothing to do with Aldrich’s film and offered no support. The result? A lower budget, gritty war film shot on the backlots in a Hollywood studio. It works nicely, ‘Attack’ reflecting its stage-based roots with some long dialogue scenes broken up by some surprisingly realistic, chaotic combat scenes. It’s hard not to look at the bombed-out French town and see the similarities with the finale to Saving Private Ryan.

A lot to be said here, ‘Attack’ getting progressively darker and darker with each passing scene. Aldrich leans on his film noir roots for some great uses of darkness and shadow as tensions rise. Even on repeated viewings, I’m surprised where the story ends up going in the final third of a 107-minute movie. It’s never gotten the credit it deserves, but it’s an anti-war classic. A must-watch.

Attack (1956): *** 1/2 /****