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Peckinpah's 1975 thriller is infuriatingly uneven. It is also one of his
most interesting films, throwing the director's preoccupations into relief.
It was made between the gothic thriller Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia
(1974), and his last great film, Cross Of Iron (1977). As the critic Pauline
Kael noted, it was a way of proving himself alive to the Hollywood
establishment, a "transparent disguise for... determination to show
Hollywood that he's not dead yet... that, despite the tabloid views of him,
frail and falling down drunk, he's got the will to make great movies." It's
no accident that this is a film in which the director stresses his auteurism
with more than the usual self-consciousness (the words 'directed by' and
'Sam Peckinpah' are separated by an emphatic crosscut in the opening
credits). Neither that it is one in which the theme of rehabilitation or,
more specifically, recuperation - dominates the dramatic matter in hand,
giving the narrative a lopsidedness from which it never really recovers.
Kung Fu plot notwithstanding, at the centre of The Killer Elite is the relationship between Locken (James Caan) and Hansen (Robert Duvall). The shifting balance between two men, who find themselves on opposite sides of the law, recall similar relationships in Ride The High Country (1962), between Steve Judd and Gil Westrum, or in The Wild Bunch (1969), between Pike Bishop and Deke Thornton. "I can't figure why he didn't put the third one in my head," says Locken, brooding in hospital. "He's your buddy," is the characteristic reply. Locken and Hansen may travel further apart than the other examples of broken camaraderie in Peckinpah's work, but their mutual respect remains intact to the end. In the shoot out at the darkened quay, despite his thirst for revenge, Locken walks away from his former partner in disgust and he's not responsible for the final bullet.
The relationship between the two men is what focuses Locken's life and gives his actions perspective. Once his buddy is dead, his character loses all motivation, and then the movie its soul. What's left is a ramshackle kung fu killer plot, which any competent straight-to-video producer could have scribbled down on the back of an envelope. Peckinpah's other films frequently end when the central partnership was irrevocably dissolved. For all of its martial pyrotechnics, The Killer Elite just goes on too long.
The most successful part of the film is contained within the opening third. The first operation, Hansen's initial betrayal (which occurs in a world of surveillance that anticipates The Osterman Weekend, 1983), and the mechanics of Locken's physical reconstruction are, by turn, engrossing. It's a time of development and learning for Locken. From the casual sex of the opening the injured agent has to adjust, restrain his bitterness ("I'll just limp out of here"), and establishes a more permanent relationship with his nurse while on the mend. From embracing a broad, Locken ends up clutching a bedpan, then grasps at any chance to re-establish himself as whole. Peckinpah found delineating the mending processes so engrossing that the belated introduction of Negato Toku (Tak Kubota) as "Godfather of all the ninja assassins," and then Locken's fortuitous assignment to protect Yuen Cheung (Mako) against death within the USA are like dramatic afterthoughts, tellingly summarised in conversation over the airport fight.
These airport scenes, however expertly cut together by the director, are perhaps amongst the most gratuitous scenes of violence in his oeuvre. The fighting is dwelt on purely as a means to patch over a glaring narrative fault line, carrying along some clumsy verbal exposition. It has none of the catharsis, or brutal poetry, familiar from the director's other films. Locken's recuperation has proved a distraction. After his hospital a scene, the belated 'catching up' scene feels at best rushed, at worst intrusive. Worse, we sense Peckinpah is just not as emotionally engaged with martial arts as he is with the matter of the Old West. (A feeling underlined when Locken watches the final ninja swordfight with calculated disinterest, calmly betting on the result.) An obvious sop to those fans who wanted more of the action exemplified in Clouse's Enter The Dragon of two years previously, the kung fu in Peckinpah's film is vigorous, filmed with style, but remains peculiarly unconvincing. Strip away the martial arts and what remains is far more interesting and consistent with Peckinpah's personal philosophy. As in his other films there is a theme running through The Killer Elite, one of honour and the inexorable passing of the old ways. One thinks of the mothballed fleet the scene of the final confrontation, a veritable graveyard of former pride and glory. "You've just been retired Mike, enjoy it," says Hansen after crippling Locken. "You just retired, Cap," echoes Locken in irony, when addressing his traitorous superior at the end. In The Killer Elite, a new order is recognised: that of power systems, none of which care about civilians, or integrity - a recognition enunciated rather surprisingly by the shambling Miller (a scruffy Bo Hopkins). Cap Collins (Arthur Hill) had earlier put these changes more succinctly: "Would you believe that heroism has become old fashioned?" So half-baked and ludicrous is the action plot that much of the film's other pleasure comes from incidentals. The initial friendship between Locken and Hansen for instance, or Miller's girlfriend calling everyone 'Mr Davies'; the editing of the explosive opening sequence; or the bomb-under-the-car scene, ending with the distant explosion (pure comic 'business' rare in Peckinpah); Caan's sensitive performance. Allied to this is Jerry Fielding's score, an outstanding contribution from a composer who worked with the director on several occasions, as well as the acting in support from Peckinpah regulars like Hopkins. In short, The Killer Elite is something of curate's egg, only good in parts but, with all its unsatisfactory elements, still essential viewing for admirers of this director.
I have a friend who likes action films, but is not familiar with action films of the 70s. Every time I bring over a 70s flick, like this one, she complains that it's too slow and boring. I tell her that it's because there is a plot and character development that modern action films lack. She doesn't care about that, she just wants to see the action scenes and the violence. This is pretty typical of those who are hooked into music videos and video games that have no plot, no character development, are finished quickly, and exist only for immediate gratification of the need for an adrenaline rush, like one minute carnival rides. If this is what you like, you won't like this film. But if you enjoy good character and story development, you won't be disappointed.
I'm a huge fan of Sam Peckinpah's movies and I'm trying to write a comment
about them all. However, this is one of the few that I'm less enthusiastic
about, simply because it is not up to the high standard usually associated
with the director (perhaps the studio tampering is partly to blame for
It's a spy flick about a not-very-nice unit of the CIA which tackles all the dirty, gritty jobs that nobody else wants. James Caan and Robert Duvall are in the organisation and are great friends, until Duvall accepts a bribe and tries to blow Caan's head off during an assignment. The rest of the movie follows Caan as he rehabilitates from the injury and sets about gaining his revenge.
The theme of honesty among savages made The Wild Bunch compelling, but here it is used to lesser effect. Peckinpah himself was a disgraced figure in Hollywood with his drug and drink problems at the time that this movie was made, and you often feel that he made it purely to keep working during such a difficult period. There's certainly a shortage of passion and belief in the material.
The best thing about the film is Duvall, but he disappears early and doesn't come back into it until near the end (and then only briefly). It also contains some good martial arts moments, although strictly speaking it is not a martial arts film. Other than that, it is definitely a low point in the Sam Peckinpah canon, and can only be recommended to those who are keen to watch all the director's movies rather than just the best ones.
Entertaining and fairly gritty look at the real life undercover spooks who
do the CIA's dirty work or sometimes are bought by the highest bidder.
Contains some parallels to Peckinpah's greatest film THE WILD BUNCH in that it explores themes of obsolescence, integrity, loyalty, and friendship. Caan and Duvall are at the top of their game and supporting actors Burt Young, Bo Hopkins, and Gig Young lend credibility as guys who are willing to play the dirty game.
Jerry Fielding score as in THE WILD BUNCH is superb. 4 out of 5 stars
The problem with "The Killer Elite" is that just by seeking this film
out, and investing time to watch it, you are putting more effort into
the experience than many of its principals did, particularly director
The already volatile Peckinpah was heading into rough weather with this film. According to at least one biographer, this was where he became acquainted with cocaine. Add to that his binge drinking, and it's no wonder things fell apart.
It's a shame, because the concept behind the film is a good one, and the first ten minutes promise much. Mike Locken (James Caan) and George Hansen (Robert Duvall) are private contractors who do a lot of dirty work for the CIA. They move quick, live well, and seem like the best of friends - then something happens to shatter their brotherhood.
An opening scene shows them blowing up a building - why exactly we aren't told, par for the course in terms of this film's murky motivation. But the implication is these guys hurt people and don't really care - antiheroes much like the Wild Bunch of Peckinpah's not-so-long-ago. An opening title tells us they work for ComTeg, then adds with obvious tongue in cheek "...the thought the CIA might employ such an organization for any purpose is, of course, preposterous." That's a pretty clever way of letting the audience know all bets are off.
Add to that a traditionally strong Peckinpah backup cast, including Burt Young, Gig Young, and Peckinpah regular Bo Hopkins in the plum role of a madman who can't pass up an opportunity to be shot at for $500 a day, and you only wish that the scriptwriters, including the celebrated Sterling Silliphant, tried to do something more with the story than turn it into a platform for lazy one-liners and bad chop-socky knockoffs. An attempt at injecting a dose of liberal social commentary is awkwardly shoehorned in. "You're so busy doing their dirty work, you can't tell who the bad guys are," someone tells Locken, as if either he or we need it pointed out.
Worse still are Peckinpah's clumsy direction and sluggish pacing. We're 40 minutes into the film before we get our first battle scene, a completely chaotic collection of random shots where a bunch of people we haven't even met before are seen fighting at San Francisco Airport, their battle intercut with a conversation in an office suite.
By the end of the film, what's left of the cast is having a battle inside a fleet of mothballed Victory Ships, ninjas running out in the open to be gunned down while Caan tosses off one liners that undercut any hint of real suspense. "Lay me seven-to-five, I'll take the little guy," he wisecracks just before a climatic samurai duel between two ninja warriors - from China, which we all know is the land of the Ninja. (The battle takes place in San Francisco, but surprisingly no Mounties arrive to break things up.)
Caan is much better in smaller scenes, like when Locken, recovering from some nasty injuries, is told by one of his bosses, played by a smooth Arthur Hill, that he's been "Humpty-dumped" by the organization. Caan refuses to stay down, and his recovery scenes, though momentum-killing for the movie, feature fine acting from him and Amy Heflin, Van's daughter, as a supportive nurse. Caan was one of the 1970s' best actors, and his laconic byplay with Heflin, Duvall, Hopkins, and both Youngs give "Killer Elite" real watchability.
But you don't watch "Killer Elite" thinking about that. You watch it thinking of the film that got away.
No one mentions Killer Elite when they talk about Peckinpah...maybe
they should. When you think Peckinpah you think The Wild Bunch and
Straw Dogs because that's all that anyone thinks is relevant about his
career. A career that is fabled to have collapsed under the pressures
of his excessive lifestyle and personality. It is for this reason I was
surprised to find this movie in the local video store the other day.
This film shows a fantastic amount of maturity about its characters as displayed through the patience with which Peckinpah walks us through the Duvall and Caan's relationship (take for instance the scene with them crossing the Golden Gate bridge...its seldom that a director takes this amount of time with dialogue that is so trivial but subtext that is so important in an indexical sort of way) and Caan's lengthy rehabilitation. The meatiest parts of this films emotional resonance is dealt with in the first act before a majority of the action.
The real strength of the film is that it allows an insight not just into Duvall and Caan but the other mercenaries who are all, in one way or another, fractured people. Though I have to admit that this particular aspect of the film could have been emphasized more I think it is something that is, unfortunately, being overlooked by some of the other people who commented on this film.
Another user drew a parallel between this film and the honor among thieves them at the heart of the Wild Bunch. There is a similarity between the two but to say that Peckinpah is making the same statement in both films is a bit myopic. James Caan's character is not William Holden's character. I can't help but feel though, that either more screen time or a solid R rating would have more clearly delineated the difference.
One last word about this film. I have always been a giant fan of Peckinpah's editing. Wild Bunch was an orgy of (true) montage editing that would have made Eisenstien blush and Straw Dogs would be less of a movie were it not for the free associative cuts into the characters mind that can only been found in the days when American Cinema was busy dry humping the New Wave (i.e. Francis Ford Coppola's the Rain People). In Killer Elite Peckinpah is DW Griffith inspired crosscutting as Sergio Leone is to the ringing phone.
I have been trying to find 'The Killer Elite' for quite some time. Directed by the legendary Sam Peckinpah in between two of his best and most underrated movies ('Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia' and 'Cross Of Iron'), and re-teaming James Caan and Robert Duvall, co-stars of 'The Godfather', I was sure that this was going to be one of those great lost 70s gems like 'Rolling Thunder' or 'The Yakuza'. Sadly, it isn't. Now I know Peckinpah often suffered studio interference and rarely got to get a movie on screen with his vision uncompromised, so I can only assume this is the case here. Caan, who is always watchable no matter what he is in, plays a CIA operative who is betrayed by his partner, Duvall (who only has a small supporting role to be honest). Wounded and written off by his bosses, he is manipulated into guarding an Asian politician (Mako, best known for the 'Conan' films) who Duvall is trying to assassinate. Caan and his hand-picked team (Peckinpah regular Bo Hopkins, and Burt Young of 'Rocky' fame) carry out there task in good faith until it becomes increasingly obvious that they are being used. Peckinpah deals with his frequent themes of loyalty and honour, and there is some characteristic bloody action sequences, but frankly the script leaves a lot to be desired, the plot sometimes wanders off track, and some golden opportunities are missed. 'The Killer Elite' reeks of compromise and therefore fails to completely satisfy. But hey, even neutered Peckinpah is still Peckinpah, and just about everything he directed wipes the floor with most of Hollywood's current lame output, so I still say give this one a try. For all its flaws it still stars James Caan, one of the most underrated actors of his generation, and even that in itself is enough to keep me watching.
I consider Peckinpah one of the big five--- Kubrick. Scorsese. Walter Hill. Eastwood.--- I've seen all his films numerous times, and this one along with Garcia stands up the best to multiple viewings. It plays like a great old album. These negative comments I've read about this flick are cuuckie talk. Every spy movie since has lifted something from this movie, as a matter of fact every action flick. Great cast, and peckinpah's wonderful laid back style are the highlights. It may seem old hat now, but try erasing the last 30 years of wannabees. Great Movie!!!
To all the long-faced dimwits bemoaning the decidedly uncontentious tone of this picture, I've three words: Get a life! First off, the "The Killer Elite" is a rip-roaring gasser about the most offbeat assassins to ever walk the earth. Burt Young versus ninjas? James Caan and Robert Duvall serenading CIA safe houses? Where do I sign? Maybe some also bellow on about how watered-down "The Killer Elite" is amongst the Peckinpah pantheon, but I put this to you: how many "PG"-rated pictures include defectors getting their brains blown out, as sanguine life sprays the walls? Not many. Third off, the nihilistic corporate pecking order as portrayed in the film sums up the old "Alfredo Garcia" "no heroes" mentality quite nicely. Mako and Gig "Fred C. Dobbs" Young are there to party, Caan, Duvall, and Young seem to be having the time of their lives, so what are we waiting for? "Let's go bananas."
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Easygoing freelance special agent Mike Locken (an excellent and engaging performance by James Caan) gets severely wounded in both his knee and elbow after being double-crossed by his tough and shifty longtime friend and partner George Hansen (a typically fine Robert Duvall). After a long and painful recovery, Locken gets a gig to protect noble Asian politician Yuen Chung (well played by Mako) and a prime opportunity to exact revenge on Hansen. Director Sam Peckinpah, working from an edgy and convoluted script by Marc Norman and Stirling Silliphant, astutely captures a distinctly 70's post-Watergate atmosphere of dread, paranoia, and moral ambiguity while exploring his usual themes of ethics, friendship, loyalty, and betrayal. Peckinpah stages several bang-up action set pieces with his customary stylistic flair: a failed hit at an airport, a wild shoot-out and subsequent car chase on the streets of San Francisco, and the exciting climax at an empty ships' graveyard. Cann and Duvall both do sterling work in the lead roles; they receive able support from Arthur Hill as the duplicitous Cap Collins, Bo Hopkins as nutty live-wire gunman Jerome Miller, Gig Young as the gloomy Lawrence Weyburn, Burt Young as cynical cab driver Mac, and the lovely Tiana as Chung's feisty daughter Tommie. Kate Heflin brings a sweet and appealing warmth to her part as Locken's helpful and sympathetic nurse girlfriend Amy. Moreover, this picture pushes the PG rating as far as it can go: the starling moments of ferocious violence are pretty brutal and grisly and we even get a decent smidgen of tasty gratuitous female nudity (look fast for ubiquitous soft-core starlet Ushi Digard in a cool uncredited bit). Philip H. Lathrop's handsome widescreen cinematography makes neat occasional use of graceful fades and dissolves. Jerry Fielding provides an effectively varied and shivery score. While not one of Peckinpah's best-ever movies (the film suffers from an overlong running time and the narrative meanders quite a bit), it's still worth seeing for fans of Bloody Sam just the same.
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