If you’ve ever wondered where to start with Jean-Paul Belmondo but have no taste for the French New Wave, The Professional might be the film for you. Released in 1981, it’s a pacy, light-hearted action movie not unlike a 1970s Bond movie, though Belmondo is more Sean Connery than Roger Moore.
Belmondo plays the French government hitman sent to an African republic to kill its president. En route, the political wind changes direction and Joss Beaumont (Belmondo) ends up being sold out by the very people who sent him on the job. As the film opens he is in an African court off his face on zombifying truth drugs and testifying to his own guilt.
Two years breaking rocks in the hot sun follow before Beaumont escapes and makes his way back to France. There, he embarks on a one-man revenge campaign against the French spying establishment, pausing only to don different disguises, squeeze through some dicey action sequences and bed a few women – there are quite a number of very attractive women in The Professional, and not all of them manage to keep their clothes on.
Bond, I said, and that starts with Joss Beaumont, the initials JB being Bond’s, but also Jason Bourne’s, and Jack Bauer’s. Belmondo slots right in beside them all. Though this has a more national focus and a darker edge than a 007, it’s largely cut from the same cloth.
Good-looking, in other words, with fluid cinematography by Henri Decaë, a DP from the top rank and first choice of the likes of Melville, Malle and Chabrol, who’d worked on films such as Bob Le Flambeur, The 400 Blows and Plein Soleil, to name just a few.
Polished, tightly written, good stunts, beautifully dressed sets, characters just plausible enough to engage with, this is intended as a big marquee film, a Saturday-night-at-the-movies affair. It’s made by the tight team of director/writer Georges Lautner and writer Michel Audiard, who worked on many comedies together and bring a bright, elastic bounce to The Professional, which at times threatens to tip over into the humorous, and then pulls back.
The soundtrack is by Ennio Morricone, and features Chi Mai, his biggest hit. This chart-bothering tune in the early 1980s was first written for a 1971 film, Maddalena, and is used, reused and then used some more in this film. Belmondo wanted it in, and he got it. When J-PB finally died in 2021, 40 years after the film’s release, it was used at his national memorial ceremony.
In truth, that’s the sort of event it should be used for and Chi Mai’s mournful, keening tones aren’t always in keeping with the on-screen events, even though its quality is.
On the downside, JB’s nemesis, the sadistic Commissioner Rosen (Robert Hossein) never really becomes a three-dimensional character and there isn’t ever really any prospect of Rosen outsmarting the rogue spy, and so you couldn’t describe this film as being plug full of tension. It also runs out of puff a touch towards the end, right after the exciting car chase around the Eiffel Tower.
This makes for a slightly anti-climactic showdown finale at a glorious French chateau, where we need to be reminded again that everything has something to do with the assassination of the African president who got JB into trouble in the first place.
J-PB does all his stunts, the closing credits tell us. Not bad for a guy nudging 50 when this is made, but whose athleticism is that of a man half his age. It would have been impossible for several reasons – not least the fact that Belmondo never wanted to leave France, though Hollywood often tempted him – but he’d have been a great James Bond.
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© Steve Morrissey 2023