If you're looking for a quick back of the DVD cover description you could say "The Professionals" is a 1966 version of "The Expendables." Except you couldn't say that at all. Well, on second thought, maybe you could a little, but it would be a hearty disservice. I'll explain. In "The Expendables" a group of macho, macho men rescue a damsel from the clutches of a ruthless dictator named Garza. In "The Professionals" a group of macho, macho men rescue a damsel from the clutches of a ruthless revolutionary named Garza.
See, uber-rich rancher Ralph Bellamy's wife, Maria (Claudia Cardinale), has been kidnapped by Jesus Garza (Jack Palance), Mexican revolutionary turned bandit, who demands an excessive ransom. So Bellamy hires Rico (Lee Marvin), Dolworth (Burt Lancaster), Ehrengard (Robert Ryan), and Sharp (Woody Strode) to infiltrate Garza's hideout and return his winsome bride to safety. For an hour the film follows the well worn trail of so many films before it. We learn about the men. Dolworth is has immense skills with dynamite. Sharp, on account of being played by the black Strode and the film being made only a few years after the time period of the setting of "The Help", is reduced to having barely any lines and using his bow and arrow to function as character "depth". The gang encounters vile Mexican bandits who, as they must, all wear bullet belts and sombreros. Eventually the gang makes it through to Garza's lair, hatches a plan, plants dynamite, and gets to within a few feet of where Maria waits only to find - uh oh - Garza stripping down and about to have his way with Maria. Except......Maria reciprocates. Lovingly. Dolworth says to Rico: "We've been had." And so, too, has the audience. Thank God!
Mad props to writer/director Richard Brooks for trusting his audience to stick with the routine - if well done - hour-long set-up before revealing all the fantastic cards in his hand. Whereas Stallone's ultra-crappy "Expendables" explicitly sticks to that well-worn trail throughout, right down to the explosion-laden finale, "The Professionals" doesn't take a detour so much as the alternate gravel road up the mountain that the highway department has effectively hidden because they fear it's not the sort of road "the people want" even though it offers gorgeous vistas rarely seen.
Maria, see, supports La Revolución and attempts – unsuccessfully – to thwart her own rescue. In that sense she’s like a south-of-the-border Pvt. James Francis Ryan – you remember him, right? The title character of Spielberg’s WWII epic “Saving Private Ryan” wherein an army company dispatched to find Pvt. Ryan and bring him home is stood up to by Pvt. Ryan himself. He won’t leave. He was ordered to defend a bridge in a small French town and, by God, he will. Thus, the company debates and winds up ignoring the mission at hand to stay and assist in the bridge defense. It is an illustration of nobility and idealism. “The Professionals”, on the other hand, are like a bunch of dudes called in by the office to fix the copier that has jammed every hour of every day for the last 7 years. This isn’t noble. This isn’t their ideal. This is their job. And they will fix that printer, come hell or paper jams. They are called Professionals for a reason. La Revolución can suck it. They were specifically paid to get Maria back to her husband and so get her back to her husband they will, regardless of her complaints and political, humanistic rhetoric.
Yet, as the movie progresses it is revealed Rico and Dolworth themselves were once on the side of Garza and La Revolución, but those allegiances faded away. Meanwhile Garza, as stated, isn’t really even a true revolutionary anymore – technically, he’s a bandit. And he has a grave but poignant speech near the end that summarizes, beginning: “La Revolución is like a great love affair. In the beginning, she is a goddess. A holy cause. But every love affair has a terrible enemy: time.”
Brooks’ film reveals there is such a muddy line between Professional and Revolutionary.