Georges Lautner’s 1981 spy flick The Professional, not to be confused with Luc Besson’s 1994 hitman thriller The Professional, is about as crass and cliché-ridden as the latter is sly and original. There’s no further basis for comparison between the two other than the shared title. Lautner’s film is a straight up revenge picture with a deserted spy at its center. Men fight, guns fire, and bombs explode. Granted, the film was shot in the early ‘80s, so these actions are fairly muted in their gratuity, but it’s also sincere enough in its intentions to be convincing enough to entertain despite numerous flaws.
Jean-Paul Belmondo is Joss Beaumont, an abandoned secret agent out for vengeance against pretty much everyone. His goals are simple: complete his original mission by assassinating President N’Jala and follow up with his betrayers by picking them off one by one. We first meet him during a trial for his life where he is charged with attempted murder in an undisclosed African country. He’s been drugged by his captives and thrown in prison for the rest of his days. He eventually makes a daring escape with the help of a fellow inmate and starts the lengthy trip back to Paris to wreak havoc on his oppressors.
It all looks and sounds like a James Bond film, but with some definitively French twists. Women are a plenty and every one serves as eye candy (and not much else) for the audience, but in Le professionnel we also get a scary scenario where torture and full frontal nudity come into play. There aren’t any really cool gadgets to speak of, but it’s made clear Beaumont knows how to handle his pistol. Our hero is charming and clever, too, but he lacks the killer instinct of someone solely out for revenge. In fact, in a film so dedicated to establishing a dramatic, serious context, Belmondo’s spy is far too non-threatening for his cause.
He rarely gets his own hands dirty. Though the body count is average for an action flick, the bodies Beaumont personally bags could be calculated on one hand. Maybe it’s the American in me wanting a Rambo-esque cold-blooded killer for a protagonist, but I found it difficult to fully support a man with a mistress, wife, and no defined sense of loyalty. Beaumont tells numerous people that President N’Jala is a tyrant who doesn’t deserve to live, but we never get to see his sins in action.
Joss’ hatred for his government makes much more sense considering they abandoned him in a foreign prison for two years. We’re expected to trust he’s doing the right thing without much evidence, visual or otherwise.
His interaction with those who deserted him is also far too civilized. He sends them a note announcing his return with his intentions clearly outlined (to kill them and the president). He has individual conversations with each and every one of them, but never even goes as far as to threaten them. During one particularly calm meeting, his adversary takes a break to make a pot of coffee so they can sit and discuss things like gentlemen.
However, these interactions are surprisingly engaging despite their civility thanks mostly to the supporting cast. While Belmondo’s performance is a little spotty (partly because of the script asking him to be funny only once or twice, but at extremely inopportune times), the rest of the players carry their small burdens well. Michel Beaune is a definite standout as the conflicted Captain Valeras.
By the time it’s all said and done, the film morphs out of cheesy spy territory and tries to become something far more somber. Its politics are hazy at best, but the final few scenes are certainly dark and impacting even if they’re a little too obscure. It’s an uneven close to a film that doesn’t stray too far from the conventional. Up until the ending, each action piece feels casually constructed to fit the action movie mold.
That familiarity makes the last twist feel misplaced. Even if an uneasy closing reaction was the filmmakers’ goal, it adds next to nothing to the film as a whole and makes you wonder whether a conservative conclusion would have been more affecting.
There’s certainly no answers provided in the one-disc DVD’s special features section. Only a theatrical trailer is provided. A quick search of Wikipedia, IMDB.com, and Google yields little, as well. An alternate, “happy” ending did exist at one point, but was discarded after the urges of Lautner and Belmondo. No further explanation is given.
Perhaps there really is nothing left to say about a film that comes across as being different just for the sake of being different, even if it is a serviceable action flick.