With 1969’s The Wild Bunch, director Sam Peckinpah helmed his masterpiece, a classic film, one of the best westerns ever made, and one of the most influential movies ever made in general. The problem? Though he directed some gems after ‘Bunch,’ he often got trapped by the legend of The Wild Bunch, often trying to live up to the reputation. Here’s 1975’s The Killer Elite, an uneven but entertaining Peckinpah flick.
Working together for a security firm affiliated with the CIA, Mike Locken (James Caan) and George Hansen (Robert Duvall) are good friends who have worked together as partners for years. Protecting an important defector, Hansen betrays Locken, shooting him in the knee and elbow before killing the defector. The horrifically crippling wounds force Locken to undergo serious surgeries and intense rehab, some of it through karate that he picks up quickly. Walking with a cane and a slight limp, Locken is brought back out of retirement to protect an important Asian politician on the run from an assassination squad. Leading the squad? Of course, it’s Hansen.
When I first really dove into Peckinpah’s filmography – an impressive, schizophrenic 14 movies – this 1975 action thriller was one of the last I was able to track down. The cast, the story, the potential Peckinpah chaos, it sounded like a winner. It’s a mixed bag in the end. Good but not great, wandering story and odd humor, and the cast is wasted at times. The potential is there, especially with a story ahead of its time foreshadowing government corruption (it was the 1970s) and its portrayal of bottom-dollar mercenaries. It’s a mess at 122 minutes, but there’s enough that works in the end.
James Caan and Robert Duvall together? It’s Sonny and Hagen back together again! Well, sorta. One betrays the other, filling him with thoughts of murderous revenge. The early scenes introduce the partnership/friendship, 2 guys with a history with a language and rhythm all to themselves. Unfortunately Duvall disappears for about an hour and then briefly comes back. Badly underused. Caan is solid, the revenge-seeking, stoic mercenary who must crawl back up from his lowest point. Caan could do a part like this in his sleep, but it’s pretty cool seeing him go all-out in the fight and karate scenes, using his cane as an accessory.
In the supporting cast, Arthur Hill and Gig Young are the firm’s supervisors, tasking their agents with one dangerous mission after another. Putting together a team to work with, Caan’s Locken chooses Mac (muttering Burt Young), a retired wheelman, and Miller (Bo Hopkins), a slightly off weapons expert. Mako plays Yuen Chung, the Asian politician looking to get back to Asia with some divisive plans. Not much backstory for anyone here, but Young and Hopkins (a Peckinpah regular) are having a lot of fun. The movie is at its best when it focuses on the agents, the mercenaries, even when they’re on opposite sides going toe-to-toe.
Mixed in with all this potential is an odd, out of left field choice to use ninjas as a villain. Not martial arts fighters….literally ninjas wearing black outfits and masks and using swords and throwing stars. It plays at times like a spoof, but it isn’t. The Locken karate subplot is one thing, but come on. It tries to be philosophical, thoughtful, questioning, but really, we just want ‘Elite’ to be fun. It is in its quicker moments, but too often goes back to that disjointed feeling of a story filled with potential that never quite figures out where it wants to go. At one point in the finale, all the action stops for a mano-a-mano fight as Caan and Young make fun of the fighters. It doesn’t play well.
You figure with a Peckinpah flick, you’re getting some good action. Eh, kinda. The final showdown is very cool, filmed on a mothball fleet of retired US Navy ships. But then the ninjas attack (poorly) and the slow motion takes over. It’s cool, but you can’t help but notice how cheesy it plays out, how disjointed it feels with all the twists and turns and betrayals. One last thing, the San Francisco filming locations are always nice to look at, and the score from Peckinpah collaborator Jerry Fielding is excellent.
The Killer Elite (1975): ** ½ /****