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Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Director Report Card: Sam Peckinpah (1975)

11. The Killer Elite 

It seems to me that most of Sam Peckinpah's movies get written about. Even relatively overlooked films of his, such as “The Deadly Companions” or “The Ballad of Cable Hogue,” have at least been talked about in the context of the director's career. Except for “The Killer Elite.” Going into this retrospective, it's the only one of Sam's films that I knew nothing about. It is easily the least discussed of his career. There might be a reason for that. Peckinpah was assigned the film by Mike Medavoy, the head of United Artists, more-or-less to prove that the notoriously difficult director could still finish a project. Which suggests the film was basically a work-for-hire gig, possibly explaining why it's so rarely discussed.

The titular killer elite is a secret division of the U.S. government assigned with assassinating enemies of the state. Their front is a company called Communications Integrity, or COMTEG. Mike Locken and George Hansen are two such agents. After a successful job, Hansen murders the man they were sent to protect and seriously injuries Locken, his friend. After recovering for a year, and now walking with a cane, Locken receives a new mission. He is to protect a Japanese client, Yuen Chung, who is being targeted by ninjas. Hansen happens to be working for the other guys, allowing Locken a chance at revenge. He puts together a team and set out on the mission.

An adaptation of “Monkey in the Middle” by Robert Syd Hopkins, Medavoy appointed Peckinpah to the project because he thought it was perfect for him. Some of Peckinpah's tendencies are present in the story. “The Killer Elite” revolves around a betrayal between best friends. Hansen shoots Locken strictly because the enemy agency offered him a higher payday. Once again, the director is touching upon the idea of men sacrificing their personal honor for a payday. Unsurprisingly, this aspect of the film is the most interesting. The friendship between the men is quickly and effectively established. When that trust is destroyed, the audience feels the sting of that treachery.

“The Killer Elite” is also a men-on-a-mission story, another classic idea Peckinpah has touched on many times throughout his career. The parts of the film dedicated to setting that mission up are fairly compelling. Watching Locken recover from his injuries is interesting enough, especially how he goes from being told he'll never walk again to learning martial arts. So is how he decides to get back into the spy game. Seeing him recruit old friends, each one having a special skill or talent, rolls along well. None of this is cutting edge stuff, or anything Peckinpah hasn't done before and better, but it serves its purpose.

After Locken gets his team together and they set off on their mission, “The Killer Elite” slowly starts to fall apart. Eventually, we discover that Hansen was paid to betray Locken by a double-crossing agent within ComTeg. The exact goals of this double-cross remains obscure. What Yuen Chung and the ninjas have to do with everything is similarly not expounded on. The film's convoluted spy narrative is sloppy, to say the least. Apparently, Peckinpah and his cast was rewriting the script as they filmed, which might explain why the story doesn't hold up to very close scrutiny.

Part of this muddled narrative is the blunt resolution to the story's main rivalry. The only part of “The Killer Elite” the viewer is really invested in is Locken getting his revenge on Hansen. The two pursue each other throughout the film. They finally face off, with about twenty minutes of the overlong 122 minute run time left. Hansen is then sniped from a distance, dying bluntly and without much fanfare. At that point, any amount of tension that existed inside “The Killer Elite” dissolves into nothing. It is another example of just how sloppy the writing in this movie is, how disinterested the filmmaker was in telling a coherent story.

Throughout his career, Peckinpah was accused of making overly violent films simply for the sake of violence. Watching his films back to back, it's evident to me that Peckinpah was actually very critical of violence, that he attempted to show the awfulness and brutality of it. With “The Killer Elite,” for the first time, I wonder if his critics were right. The movie shows the director attempting to make “cool violence.” He employs his slow-motion, murdered men falling backwards from the fatal blows. A man is shot in the head, early on, leading to a huge squip. There's a karate fight throughout an airport, with faces being shoved through glass. Yet the film is largely free of the critical streak present in Peckinpah's other films. For once, it seems the director is just making a straight ahead action movie.

This is most evident during the increasingly ludicrous climax. Locken and his team take Yuen Chung onto a retired battleship. There, the man responsible for betraying them and the enemy ninja clan attack. The ninjas, in their gray and black pajamas, look very silly. Cartoonish ninjas being gorily gunned down by machine guns is not the kind of thing I'd expect from a gritty filmmaker like Peckinpah. At the same time, some of the stiffest and least convincing martial arts fight scenes I've ever seen play out. It's clear that Peckinpah had no investment in the Asian side of the story, as he freely mixes Japanese and Chinese attributes without care.

There are even a few scenes where I think “The Killer Elite” is trying to be funny. Following a pretty neat car chase, the auto expert on Locken's team removes a bomb from their car. They are then stopped by a patrol officer. The cop ends up being handed the bomb and, greatly confused and concerned, wanders off with it. Judging from an explosion we later hear in the distance, he apparently blows up off-screen. Later, during the ninja duel to the death, Locken comments on the battle. He seems to think the entire thing is pretty silly. Those comments make me wonder if the ninja element of the film was inserted against Peckinpah's wishes, just to cash in on the martial arts craze of the day.

“The Killer Elite” stars James Caan. Caan maintains an amiable attitude throughout most of the film. He's joking in early scenes and partying with girls. Even after being injured, while attempting to recover from his wounds, he's still making jokes and goofing off. He plays Locken as someone he enjoys hanging out with his boys, no matter how grave the circumstances might be. Caan seems confused by the plot and even actively annoyed by it at times. Yet he still gives it his all, contributing a performance that is entertaining if not especially deep.

Starring opposite Caan is Robert Duvall. Well, sort of. See, Duvall's Hansen seems like he should be a pretty big role. His betrayal sets the plot in motion. He's the primary antagonist for most of the story. Yet Duvall isn't on-screen very much. That his role in the film is limited is disappointing. The early scenes, where Duvall and Caan are playing off each other, are entertaining. The two seem to have a good rapport. If the film could have built off that more, especially when time comes for the two to have their final showdown, it probably would've been improved.

At least the supporting cast is pretty awesome. Burt Young plays Mac, the car expert Locken employs. Young does not play the character that differently than his most famous role of Paulie from the “Rocky” films. This makes it seem like Pauly is hanging out with spies and assassins for some reason, which is pretty funny. Bo Hopkins, reappearing from “The Wild Bunch” and “The Getaway,” plays Jerome. A psycho-for-hire who's very good with a gun, Hopkins is having fun hamming it up. Mako plays Yuen Chung, a Japanese ninja with a Chinese name. Even in a part as underwriten as this, Mako brought a certain degree of respectability to the role.

I have no idea how “The Killer Elite” did at the box office. Considering the zero impact it made on wider pop culture, I'm going to guess its performance was uninspiring. The critical reception was largely negative, though Japanese director Shinji Aoyama considers it one of the best films ever made. Even the people who made the movie didn't like it, as James Caan considers it one of his worst films. Peckinpah was forced to recut the movie to receive a PG rating, a process I can't imagine the director enjoyed. (The R-rated version is the only one that's easily available now.) The film is a bit of a mess. However, it presumably proved that Peckinpah could still complete a film, ensuring he would make a few more movies. So that's good, I guess. [Grade: C-]

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