When the professional acts like it
March 9, 2022 6:52 PM   Subscribe

I enjoy it in media when characters truly act like the professionals or highly skilled individuals they are. Often it is action oriented - a flawlessly executed heist (Rififi), driving a car (Ronin, Grand Prix), hand to hand combat (many martial arts movies), tactical and strategic thinking (Mamet films), gunplay (Sicario, John Wick). But it can be other things as well: deduction or logic, cooking, games, sports, etc. What are some movies, TV shows, or books where the characters genuinely give off the feeling that they are highly trained and talented professionals?
posted by BlackLeotardFront to Media & Arts (57 answers total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
I think a weirdly good example of this is the one time in The Office (US) where Michael Scott shows that he's actually a good salesman.
posted by General Malaise at 6:55 PM on March 9, 2022 [10 favorites]

Burn Notice! Michael Westen would take on James Bond without breaking a sweat.
posted by HonoriaGlossop at 7:10 PM on March 9, 2022 [3 favorites]

I have heard this referred to as "competence porn" if you're looking for a search term.
posted by DebetEsse at 7:12 PM on March 9, 2022 [31 favorites]

Newspaper movies like All the President's Men (1976) and Spotlight (2015) for the slow, grinding work of following leads and nailing down a story.

The Martian (the book or the movie) for problem solving, long range planning, and large organizations drawing on institutional knowledge.

Movies showing the meticulous preparations of assassins and their responses to changing circumstances. A prime example of this would be The Day of the Jackal (1973).

Google "competence porn" for more.
posted by theory at 7:13 PM on March 9, 2022 [12 favorites]

The Americans.
posted by JimN2TAW at 7:14 PM on March 9, 2022 [9 favorites]

Better Call Saul (lawyering)
posted by bleep at 7:31 PM on March 9, 2022 [4 favorites]

The Hunt for Red October. They, American and Soviet military personnel, are all competent. But I particularly like the scene where the Red October's officers sit down together and chat about their mission. The camaraderie between them, professionals who know and trust each other with their lives, is excellent.
posted by Stuka at 7:47 PM on March 9, 2022 [1 favorite]

The Accountant is kind of a weird version of this where the main character is an action hero, but also a brilliant forensic accountant — and autistic:
The storyline follows Christian Wolff, a certified public accountant with high-functioning autism who makes his living uncooking the books of criminal and terrorist organizations around the world that are experiencing internal embezzlement.
To get an idea of the flavor, there is a strange moment early on where Wolff is in the process of blowing away an entire group of particularly evil mafiosi and an undercover cop who has the group under surveillance gets trammeled up in it, Wolff has to decide whether or not to kill him too, the issue of children comes up, Wolff asks "were you a good dad?" in a particularly innocent and uninflected way, and the affirmative answer saves the cop's life.

I thought it worked better than it had any right to and deserves to be a cult classic, but I haven’t seen any evidence that it is, in fact.
posted by jamjam at 7:51 PM on March 9, 2022 [1 favorite]

Not all are professionals, but the team in Twister is one of my favorite examples of a team of people where each person has a role, each is good at their role, and each is valued for their role on the team. I feel like that's something that's often overlooked about this film - but then, before I retired I worked on a different kind of team with the same values, so it always resonates with me.

In this same vein, Apollo 13
posted by TimHare at 8:35 PM on March 9, 2022 [5 favorites]

Mr Pink in Reservoir Dogs admonishes other characters for not having acted like a professional thief in their actions before, during, and after their robbery gone wrong.
posted by cali59 at 8:38 PM on March 9, 2022 [1 favorite]

In the first Matt Damon Bourne film, The Bourne Identity, when the action picks up, he slows down and thinks and acts in a methodical fashion.
posted by mmascolino at 8:40 PM on March 9, 2022 [3 favorites]

I guess you could include Moneyball, which gets a little schlocky but is about professionals trying something new and trying not to kill each other in the process.
posted by credulous at 9:26 PM on March 9, 2022 [2 favorites]

Cant believe I’m the first in with The West Wing, my fave of all competence porn!
posted by nancynickerson at 9:32 PM on March 9, 2022 [12 favorites]

Just keep in mind that good martial arts do not necessarily make good cinema. Scott Adkins explains that in this episode of Stuntmen Reacts
posted by kschang at 12:33 AM on March 10, 2022 [1 favorite]

I rather liked the two books by Dr. Thomas Naguchi, aka "Coroner to the Stars".

Coroner discusses deaths of RFK, Sharon Tate, Marilyn Monroe, Janis Joplin, and many more...

I didn't find the 2nd book Coroner At Large as interesting as he goes over the cases that he was not a part of, but still in Hollywood, but even goes back in history and discuss famous deaths like General Custer or even Adolt Hitler.
posted by kschang at 12:50 AM on March 10, 2022

Movies showing the meticulous preparations of assassins and their responses to changing circumstances. A prime example of this would be The Day of the Jackal (1973).

Day of the Jackal also has a competent policeman chasing the Jackal, so double bubble for your search.

You could make an argument that both the modern Sherlock Holmes films (ie Robert Downey Jr) also show an expert at work, extending SH's usual competence to physical action. The final scene with Moriarty in the second one essentially uses a fistfight to emphasise their ability to think through and act on decisions in the instant.
posted by biffa at 1:36 AM on March 10, 2022

The Oceans franchise showcases some first-rate long cons. I would also suggest The Devil Wears Prada.
posted by DarlingBri at 1:59 AM on March 10, 2022 [4 favorites]

Nora Roberts is known for this - for instance the protagonist who is a builder in Tribute. SBTB has done a couple of Rec Leagues on it - here.
posted by paduasoy at 2:28 AM on March 10, 2022

Winston Wolf in Pulp Fiction: "I solve problems"
posted by Morpeth at 3:20 AM on March 10, 2022 [6 favorites]

The Ninth Gate portrays a bunch of rare book trade folks, who generally hit the right notes. While you don’t see Corso’s notes when he’s comparing texts, he looks about like you do when you’re doing that kind of work.
posted by cupcakeninja at 3:43 AM on March 10, 2022 [1 favorite]

Winston Wolf in Pulp Fiction: "I solve problems"

This takes us to Keitel as the Cleaner in 1993's The Assassin (Point of No Return), who is largely competent, and Jean Reno as the original (and less competent) version of the character in 1990's Nikita. Reno (and Besson) would go on to invent the much more murderously competent Leon in 1994.
posted by biffa at 5:21 AM on March 10, 2022 [1 favorite]

To open the fourth wall a crack, it might be worth considering method actors internalizing their role. Think of Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot, playing Christy Brown as an artist with cerebral palsy. DDL famously refused to step out of character while off set; insisting on being spoon-fed his lunch and having assistants lumber his wheelchair over all the behind scenes clutter of planks and cabling.
posted by BobTheScientist at 5:34 AM on March 10, 2022 [1 favorite]

On the credulity-stretching end of the spectrum: Jack Reacher is a hulking retired military policeman who is a master investigator, elite marksman, and expert lover of women, who can solve a crime, save a small town and smash up a small army of gangster linebacker terrorists with his ham-sized fists, all on a single jug of black coffee. The books and the first movie depict his faintly ludicrous level of competence best.
posted by dudekiller at 6:36 AM on March 10, 2022 [1 favorite]

I think Ozark fits the bill. Both Marty and Wendy Byrde's professional expertise in their respective fields plays a large role in the unfolding of events. We also get to watch Ruth Langmore's instinctive canniness develop into greater professionalism under Marty's tutelage. Very enjoyable stuff.
posted by fikri at 6:52 AM on March 10, 2022 [3 favorites]

Going back in time a bit:

The A-Team
The surgeons in M*A*S*H. Most of them are drunken sexual predators but when they get into the OR they are pros.
Johnny Gage and Roy DiSoto in Emergency!
posted by bondcliff at 7:09 AM on March 10, 2022 [1 favorite]

Taken (IMO) is pretty close to a competent, moderately realistic action hero-

I'm sorry but John Wick is a video game movie- I'd call it the opposite. Villains just appear from offscreen in multiple scenes!

The more competent version of John Wick is Jack Reacher (though its a worse movie).

Also from Liam Neeson - The Grey.

Agree with Jason Borne.
Rush for driving. It's actually the story of serious professional vs a lucky flash in the pan.
posted by The_Vegetables at 7:25 AM on March 10, 2022

I think Mozart in the Jungle did this with classical musicians (I am not a classical musician).
posted by FencingGal at 7:28 AM on March 10, 2022

Olivia Pope in Scandal
posted by somedaycatlady at 7:30 AM on March 10, 2022

Seconding The Martian.

Big Night for cooking, but it will make you hungry.

Not sure if the whole movie fits, but I loved this scene in The Founder, about the founding of McDonalds.

And I hate to say it, but Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada.
posted by Mchelly at 7:37 AM on March 10, 2022 [4 favorites]

I believe Jiro Dreams of Sushi would meet your criteria.
posted by Winnie the Proust at 8:08 AM on March 10, 2022 [6 favorites]

Parker in the novels by Richard Stark is (as well as being ruthless and amoral) a masterful and brilliant thug. Although he's very good at hitting people, he's no superhuman and doesn't have many skills beyond a flair for violence. However, he is a tactical genius, assessing every situation and figuring out the best way to get what he wants.
posted by Busy Old Fool at 8:18 AM on March 10, 2022

The West Wing is the pinnacle of competency porn!
posted by amaire at 8:29 AM on March 10, 2022 [1 favorite]

Leverage as well, for competent heists.
posted by suelac at 9:03 AM on March 10, 2022 [3 favorites]

Not fictional, but I really like Li Ziqi's YouTube channel for this. She's so great at cooking, preserving, farming, foraging, weaving, furniture building and so many other things, and she makes it look effortless. (It's not, but she makes it look like it is—another of her talents, I suspect.)

I like Columbo and Veronica Mars (at least the first two seasons) for this type of feeling as well.
posted by helloimjennsco at 9:08 AM on March 10, 2022 [1 favorite]

They are infrequent, but scenes in which Ron Swanson talks about woodworking or other crafts (e.g. making rings) might fight your bill. Nick Offerman is a skilled woodworker in real life.
posted by synecdoche at 9:33 AM on March 10, 2022 [1 favorite]

This is such a great question. I've never thought about this specific element before but you're right, competence can be so fun to watch.

One example that comes to mind is Spy Game. (Great and undeservedly forgotten movie.) Robert Redford plays an end-of-career CIA spook who, when he finally gets motivated and shakes off the rust, cuts through the Agency like a hot knife through butter. So satisfying to watch.

Others I can think of:
Viggo Mortensen in Eastern Promises.
Toshiro Mifune's character in Yojimbo and Sanjuro.
Basically half the characters in Heat.
posted by ZaphodB at 10:50 AM on March 10, 2022 [2 favorites]

Better Call Saul (lawyering)

To build on this—Saul is an extremely talented and competent conman, and those skills make him a formidable lawyer. It’s a blast to watch him outwit people both in court and out.
posted by ejs at 11:51 AM on March 10, 2022 [5 favorites]

I like a sorta-genre of movie where a bunch of dummies try to pull off some kind of caper, but their plan intersects with someone who is a professional criminal. Suicide Kings does this really well, and is a fun movie!

The first few seasons of Peaky Blinders is also good in this way - people continuously underestimate Tommy's ruthlessness.

Non-violence based skills:

I liked the movie Pig - Nic Cage's character seems extremely good at what he does.

Everyone in Black Swan makes me believe that they are top-of-the-pile ballerinas.

(this question reminds me of Wayne Jarvis from Arrested Development - "I will duck behind this couch" "what a professional")
posted by euphoria066 at 1:14 PM on March 10, 2022 [1 favorite]

Speaking of long cons, The Sting (Newman & Redford) has a great one, as well as a string of smaller ones. I still laugh during the poker scene.
posted by kingless at 1:59 PM on March 10, 2022

The West Wing, The Americans, Sherlock and Joan in Elementary, Lester Freamon in The Wire, Sameen Shaw in Person of Interest, Peter Quinn in Homeland.
posted by purple_bird at 3:43 PM on March 10, 2022 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Love these answers, many are ones I know and love so can't wait to check out the others. I'm going to leave the thread open so people can keep loading it up.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 3:47 PM on March 10, 2022

Person of Interest was like this for me. The great part was you got to see two kinds of competence - the elite CIA assassin gone rogue kind, as well as genius computer hacker. Michael Emerson is really good at playing that character who seems unassuming, kind of nerdy, but then you find out he's like 1000x smarter than everyone else in the room and also secretly kind of ruthless in the right circumstances.
posted by litera scripta manet at 4:11 PM on March 10, 2022 [2 favorites]

Zero Effect
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 4:41 PM on March 10, 2022 [2 favorites]

The film The Big Short was satisfying in this way.

The books of Dick Francis are mysteries set in the racing world. In each of them, he tended to chose a different profession for his protagonist and explore it: art dealer, pilot, bookie, etc. as a result there is usually a great deal of ‘and here’s a competent professional doing competent things while explaining them to readers’.
posted by bq at 5:46 PM on March 10, 2022 [2 favorites]

If you don't mind snatched from the headlines, then the movie Sully hinges on the FAA meetings to make sure everyone did the right thing, and FAA is not the villain but also a bunch of people also trying to do their best.

Zero Dark Thirty is another ripped from the headlines- not as good, but CIA security analysts doing their best.

The early seasons of Bones, CSI, and NCIS, etc are people being really competent at their jobs, as long as you can discount the cops extorting and threatening tons of mcguffins and absolutely ludicrous science. The later seasons the main characters themselves are the objects of the criminals' interest, they get really silly. But the early seasons are fine.

The Wolf of Wall Street is really outrageous, but the lead is a competent salesman and criminal, and you could basically copy him and do the same thing from watching the movie.
posted by The_Vegetables at 7:40 AM on March 11, 2022

In a way, I guess Reacher (both the TV and the novels) and House MD are also competence porn?
posted by kschang at 8:37 AM on March 11, 2022

Stephen Rea portrays the Russian detective Victor Burakov's relentless pursuit of the serial killer Andrei Chikatilo in the mostly factual but dramatized movie "Citizen X" which is a quite decent and has a gorgeous color scheme. The movie is adapted from Robert Cullen's The Killer Department.
posted by Carlo at 5:30 PM on March 11, 2022

Gandhi was exceptionally good at what he did.
posted by Winnie the Proust at 6:15 PM on March 11, 2022

An oldie that I thought had great performances by great actors is Gorky Park (don’t read past the first couple of paragraphs to avoid spoilers); trailer, with William Hurt as inspector Arkady Renko, and really wonderful supporting performances by Lee Marvin and Brian Dennehy.
posted by jamjam at 7:12 PM on March 11, 2022

Sneakers has a great scene where Robert Redford has been kidnapped, driven to a secret location, then released elsewhere, and now with the rest of his gang he's trying to figure out where the secret location was. They manage to do it perfectly by analyzing what he remembers hearing during the drive, e.g. how fast were they going at various points, did they pass over any bridges, what was the rhythm/tempo of noises made by passing over metal plates in the bridge(!).

Lots of competence porn in this movie, and one hell of a cast...
posted by equalpants at 12:13 AM on March 12, 2022 [4 favorites]

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen
A fisheries expert is approached by a consultant to help realize a sheik's vision of bringing the sport of fly-fishing to the desert and embarks on an upstream journey of faith and fish to prove the impossible possible.
posted by oldnumberseven at 3:31 AM on March 12, 2022

I mean, the sword fighting scene between Wesley and Inigo in Princess Bride has to belong on this list, right?
posted by DingoMutt at 3:04 PM on March 12, 2022 [5 favorites]

Seconding Nora Roberts, especially the Bride Quartet (each book focuses on a different professional in a wedding planning company: the photographer, the florist, the baker, and the planner). Similarly, many of Jenny Colgan's books feature women who are really good at baking.
posted by kristi at 4:36 PM on March 12, 2022

Mr. Robot for hacking scenes!
posted by Tom-B at 4:40 PM on March 13, 2022 [1 favorite]

Animated, and...uh...Star Wars, but Grand Admiral Thrawn in the series Rebels is a terrifyingly competent antagonist. Scarier than Darth Vader, in my opinion.
posted by orrnyereg at 6:52 AM on March 14, 2022

. . . Lester Freamon in The Wire . . .

I jumped into The Wire in the middle of things, and the first scene I watched was Cool Lester Smooth demonstrating his shoulder surfing abilities to read a phone card as it's punched in. He was instantly and remains to this day my favorite.
posted by whuppy at 6:41 AM on March 15, 2022 [2 favorites]

The Beatles documentary "Get Back" could fit.
posted by Pronoiac at 12:20 PM on March 23, 2022

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