Rich businessman Joe Grant (Ralph Bellamy) has a proposition for some former revolutionaries in the Mexican Civil War, led by Rico (Lee Marvin), which could make them a lot of money. He calls Rico and his friends Hans (Robert Ryan) and Jake (Woody Strode) to see him on his private train carriage as they near the border and tells them that his wife, Maria (Claudia Cardinale), has been kidnapped by what he regards as a group of bandits following Jesus Raza (Jack Palance), and he will pay them ten thousand dollars each to get her back. They agree - as long as he will bail out their ally, Bill Dolworth (Burt Lancaster), from jail...
Before The Wild Bunch appeared on the scene and changed westerns forever, and after The Magnificent Seven showed that gathering some star names together for a western could result in a lucrative project, there was The Professionals, written and directed by Richard Brooks. Sadly, this effort has been forgotten about in the long shadows cast by those other two movies, but is arguably almost as good as either of them, living up to its name as being a throroughly professional piece of work, with plentiful action and quality suspense sequences.
Once our four lead stars have been assembled, they head off to Mexico in search of Maria, but there is a complication. As they all fought on the side of the revolutionaries when engaged in the war, they are actually good friends of Raza, although they haven't seen him in a while, but one of the themes of the film is how the lure of money can make you give up your scruples when there's the promise of being well paid to contend with. You get the impression that the main reason these four are banding together is more because of the cash and less because of the adventure they're embarking on with their mates.
Brooks peppers the film with rich and salty dialogue - e.g. Lancaster: "Well, I'll be damned!" Marvin: "Most of us are" - which contributes to the tough guy atmosphere. In fact, there are shades of toughness here, with Ryan's Hans having a soft spot for horses, through to Marvin's unsentimental Rico, but each have a certain integrity, even Lancaster's roguish Bill who in his inimitable manner is charm personified, although he would shoot down his best friend if the price was right. At least he would be decent enough to regret it. Yet as they venture closer to Raza's gang, questions of morality cannot help but arise.
There's a twist about halfway through that deepens the drama while being pretty guessable, but not to the story's detriment. Those action sequences are among the best of the genre during the sixties and the fact that there is this amount of star wattage, with all the charisma that goes with it, means that The Professionals has a compulsively watchable quality, especially for fans of this kind of thing done well. The question of who the real good guys are is answered by the end, but proves that there are degrees of rectitiude, and whose side you are on very much colours the perception of who you will be judged to be, a hero or a villain. Brooks does not lay this on too thick, and the film can still be appreciated as a pure western experience, but it's touches like this that make it a cut above the more rollicking adventures that were around at the time. Music by Maurice Jarre.