Wednesday, August 29, 2018
Director Report Card: Sam Peckinpah (1975)
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.
“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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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-]