The Killer Elite Review
Continuing my inadvertent trip through Sam Peckinpah’s greatest – and not so greatest – films, after looking at the excellent Studio Canal release of his strong war flick Cross of Iron; dipping into one of his worst-but-most-successful features with the superb Optimum release of Convoy; and venturing all the way to Italy to find a decent release of my (and his) personal favourite, his best-but-least-successful Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, we now venture to France to look at a turning point towards what was ultimately his downfall, the flawed espionage-flavoured martial arts action-thriller, The Killer Elite.
Based on Monkey in the Middle, about the protection of an African diplomat on UK soil – the first of a trio of decent spy novels by Robert Rostand – The Killer Elite should not be confused with the equally flawed (but for different reasons) Robert DeNiro / Clive Owen action-thriller, Killer Elite, which underwhelmed audiences a couple of years’ back. Sam Peckinpah’s 1975 flick came at a time when, yet again, he needed a hit, and was so ostracised from Hollywood that he would take anything he could get. It had been three years since The Godfather and James Caan too needed a decent success, and it was suggested that collaborating with Peckinpah would be a good career move. Unfortunately, the by-then heavily alcoholic Peckinpah would fatally succumb to Caan’s cocaine temptations, something which would only further damage his work. Even the presence of Robert Duvall couldn’t save the piece, although there’s a strange curiosity value to Peckinpah’s spys, guns, and martial arts combo, leaving it far from his worst film.
Private company with C.I.A. contracts seeks men willing to risk life. Perfect physical condition. Experience with weaponry, incendiaries, Karate/Judo. No loyalties. No dependents. Long career doubtful.
Mike Locken is a top operative employed by a clandestine organisation whose private contractors do the jobs so dirty even the C.I.A. want to outsource them. On his latest assignment – to facilitate an East European defection – his partner and best friend, George Hansen betrays him, kills the client, and shoots out Locken’s elbow and knee. His bosses tell him that his career is over, but Locken spends months in rehabilitation and, with the assistance of a leg and arm brace, and dedicated martial arts training, he wants back in. Which is fine by the organisation, as they have the perfect new assignment – a visiting Chinese dignitary is the target of a ruthless Japanese crime syndicate, and the C.I.A. doesn’t want the hit to take place on U.S. soil; also, the Japanese assassins just so happen to have approached Locken’s old colleague Hansen to lead the operation.
On the face of it, it's hard to understand why Peckinpah ended up doing The Killer Elite. He turned down King Kong and Superman, and a martial arts actioner seemed just as preposterous a proposal for the cantankerous, old-school filmmaker as giant gorillas and flying aliens. Yet the producers – who had backed Alfredo Garcia – knew he needed a hit, and figured it might be right up his street: the martial arts aspect was at least grounded in reality and, more importantly, it came from Eastern cultures whose focus on such seemingly long-lost ideals as loyalty and honour Peckinpah could truly relate to (indeed, for some peculiar reason that may be lost in translation, acclaimed Japanese filmmaker declared The Killer Elite one of his personal Greatest Films of All Time in 2012, commenting that “no other movie has taught me as much about human dignity”; maybe there’s another, different cut available in Japan).
The story itself also tapped into Peckinpah’s anti-establishment, anti-policy-makers sentiments with its shady, conspiratorial anti-C.I.A. spy threads. These would be themes that he would return to in later features, including his misguided and fatally flawed Convoy, and his only other spy thriller, the twisted Robert "Bourne" Ludlum-based The Osterman Weekend, but, although undeniably flawed, The Killer Elite was his best attempt at this. Unfortunately his best attempt was no longer enough.
“You're so busy doin' their dirty work, you can't tell who the bad guys are.”
The trouble was, as is often the case on his most flawed efforts, he simply could not maintain focus. Often this was as a result of studio interference - in this case he was massively frustrated by the PG-rating restrictions they imposed (this release sports both the original theatrical cut and the supposedly uncut director’s cut, which, funnily enough, includes NO extra violence, but instead an extra 7 minutes of recuperation and training), as well as the stipulation that, for the first time in his career, he was not allowed to tinker with the script, and finally that he had to use the scriptwriter’s talentless wife in a leading lady role - but here the added outside issue was his introduction to the destructive world of cocaine.
Don't get me wrong, whilst I abhor this particularly sociopath-inducing drug, plenty of directors have successfully used cocaine in their work - one could argue that Scorsese made some of his greatest early-era masterpieces whilst under the influence (Mean Streets, Taxi Driver) - but, unlike alcohol, it seemed to have a devastatingly adverse effect on Peckinpah. It was the first production where he would spend increasing amounts of time in his trailer, allowing second unit directors to take over for much of the film - and the cracks would begin to show. Even regular Peckinpah collaborator Jerry Fielding would declare this the end of their creative collaborations together, and, after Peckinpah publically defended the discarded work of Fielding on his second McQueen film, The Getaway, over a decade earlier, it must have taken a great deal to push Fielding to this decision. Things would reach a head with an overdose and a second pacemaker being implanted, but this would not deter Peckinpah’s drug and alcohol intake over the rest of his career, and perhaps the damage had been done already anyway. Either way, this was the start of the end.
Indeed it seems churlish that star James Caan - the man reputedly responsible for introducing Peckinpah to the drug in the first place - would rate the completed film as "0/10" back on release. Caan himself was not immune to the effects of his own poison, providing an anti-hero protagonist who uncomfortably flits between jovial charm and comedic one-liners, to volatile explosive anger; peppering the transient periods with bursts of heavily mumbled - possibly even slurred – dialogue, and an almost complete lack of visible emotion.
It would be an irony, considering Peckinpah's real-life hospitalisation, that Caan's character would endure a protracted hospital stay and rehabilitation process too. In fact, one has to wonder whether Peckinpah's editorial choices were skewed towards focusing on this aspect of the movie as a result of his own experiences (the only differences between the longer Director’s Cut and the original Theatrical Cut lie in two rehabilitation scenes and a martial arts training sequence). Either way, the movie lurches slowly through this prolonged element of stagnancy before, almost an hour further down the line, giving us more of Peckinpah's traditional action sequences.
Along the way we see regular Peckinpah character actors pop up like Gig Young - returning to a similar role as in Alfredo Garcia; this time partnering with Arthur Hill to play the conniving heads of the C.I.A. private contractors - and both Bo Hopkins and Burt Young; Hopkins playing his usual unhinged team member, as per The Wild Bunch, whilst Rocky's Burt Young chews up the scenery in the same trademark fashion that would serve as a similarly brief bright spark in the later Convoy.
They provide some measure of distraction as we wait far too long for the action to kick into high gear (a promising opening explosion, well-shot betrayal, and brief flashback montage of an airport assassination attempt are simply not enough to really sustain us) but the second-billed Robert Duvall is used far too sparingly to prove a saving grace. There was the potential there for him to be a great antagonist, but he's barely in the movie and, however much his name gets mentioned as part of the protagonist's quest for revenge, the lack of Duvall's presence, in terms of sheer screen-time, does not go unnoticed.
The climax too, whilst not quite qualifying as anti-climactic, is far from what you would normally expect from a Peckinpah action flick. Slo-mo ninja assassins battling C.I.A private contractors atop a decommissioned naval vessel? Can you see where the curiosity value comes into play?
Reputedly Peckinpah had taken to sitting inside his trailer watching Bruce Lee movies to inspire his action scenes and, to be fair, the martial arts sequences on offer are reasonably well choreographed and feature Karate, Ninjitsu and Kendo. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t make much sense to see (sane) ninjas running towards guys with machine guns, nor to see Caan – no matter how much training he undertook for the role – batting them away with his cane. Hell, even Burt Young starts pistol-whipping his opponents when they get too close, something which is a worrying advertisement for the skill of these ninja assassins: if they can’t get past Burt Young then they’re really not very good, art they? Perhaps, after The Wild Bunch, anything less than an epic, siege-like final battle was simply going to disappoint Peckinpah fans, but, the trouble with The Killer Elite was that it set things up for an epic conclusion and then proceeded to simply fizzle out. It only offers modest entertainment from a director who was known for much, much more.
“Don’t know where we’re going. Don’t know where we’ve been. But I know where we was wasn’t it.”
Despite a lot of close calls throughout his career, The Killer Elite was definitely the start of the actual end for Peckinpah, and watching his once-great talents become ever more diluted over his last couple of features was just painful. He made some all-time classics in his time, not just his best-known The Wild Bunch, but also the less-well known Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, with the likes of The Getaway, Straw Dogs, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, and Cross of Iron all defining features in his film history. The Killer Elite was not his worst feature – that credit should go to either the remarkably dull and un-Peckinpah-like Convoy, or his extremely muddled final film, The Osterman Weekend – but it was still the start of the very end. Watchable but weak, this one’s for completists only.
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