The Killer Elite Reviews
The Killer Elite has a lot of potential in its story, serving as a tale of working as an assassin for the CIA. And giving it to hardcore western film director Sam Peckinpah ensures that the natural gritty nature of his works transfers well into The Killer Elite. The film isn't perfect, but it contains the dark western qualities that he is known for contributing to his work. And while The Killer Elite is clearly not his finest, it's a more meaningful exploration of assassination games than any of the films that follow the plot these days.
Unlike films such as Assassins or Mr and Mrs Smith, the theme of becoming an assassin and playing off against another is explored in a more meaningful fashion instead of wasted simply on the context of a mindless action flick. But it does succeed as the latter as well, making it a successful film of many genres.
While admittedly, the film is a very slow paced one for the majority of its running time, it really picks up towards the end. For the most of the first half of the film, the story explores the courage of its protagonist Mike Locken as he deals with recovering and regaining his spirit as an assassin after facing the betrayal of his best friend. And the entire time we learn more and more about him and his humanity, as well as his dignity as a person and an assassin. Sam Peckinpah really goes about ensuring that The Killer Elite is a story with strong characters to it which develops well over the course of its 122 minute running time and in the end its like a gritty modern western in a contemporary setting facing similar themes to the famous action film Dirty Harry from 4 years prior to The Killer Elite.
The Killer Elite is inconsistent in pacing and its drama isn't consistently effective, but when it is it leaves the viewers appreciating the amount of thought and effort put into this film so it transcends the qualities of a generic assassin-themed action film. Admittedly, it is boring at times and some may find it sporadically entertaining, but as a Sam Peckinpah film he takes the chance to prove that he really knows what he is doing as a filmmaker. He capitalises on all the drama of Robert Rostand's original story Monkey in the Middle and makes it an occasionally thought provoking film which doesn't descend into the usual territory of revenge-themed action films. And as a visual experience, the film succeeds.
From a visual perspective, The Killer Elite is entertaining. While its scenery is occasionally grim due to fairly dark lighting which proves itself rather predominant from time to time, most of the time it creates a very interesting and convincing setting which sets up The Killer Elite to succeed as a thoroughly believable film which it doesn't fail to do. And its all shot very well with fine cinematography which always gets the right angle and which when combined with the well composed musical score ends up making the experience of watching The Killer Elite to be a very atmospheric one. This also comes over into the action scenes.
Like I said before, The Killer Elite is a successful action film. While its action isn't that predominant within the first half of the meeting, when it picks up in quantity the film becomes an exhilarating action experience with some also shootouts, sword fights and a few explosions, all without ever transcending the serious nature of its assassin study. The action scenes are very entertaining and are shot excellently, giving The Killer Elite a powerful climax for viewers to enjoy. I loved the action in The Killer Elite, and it is some of the best that Sam Peckinpah ever shot in his career.
And thanks to a well assembled cast of talented actors, The Killer Elite's well written script is delivered finely and makes the feature out to be the compelling film that it wants to be.
James Caan's lead performance is great. He is a strong actor who proved himself just years ago with his excellent performance in The Godfather, and in The Killer Elite he shows just how well he can hold his own when he tries. He doesn't even have to try that hard, because his natural charisma is more than enough to carry him to end in The Killer Elite. Instead of turning his character into a mindless action hero, he actually makes his character a compelling and determined figure who doesn't lack a human side whatsoever. James Caan breathes a lot of life into his role and makes it a more compelling effort than you would expect from The Killer Elite. His decision to work with Sam Peckinpah was a great idea, and it makes the film another entertaining feature to benefit from his leading skill.
Robert Duvall is a talented man which everybody should agree with, and seeing him in a down to earth performance in a simple film is good. He has surprises in him, and in his talented wisdom he manages to make it work itself into his character lightly. Robert Duvall's performance boasts a strong chemistry with James Caan and reminds us just how surprising he can be even when he sets his mind to a simple role like in The Killer Elite. He's a great presence, and considering he has been working in western films for years, further back than his role in True Grit, its awesome for him to be working with Sam Peckinpah.
Burt Young's supporting performance is also a nice touch.
So while the entertainment value in The Killer Elite is likely to jump from person to person and it is rather slow as well as dated and boring at times, it is well meaning film which takes into account a lot of the themes in its story usually ignored by similar action films as well as standing as a great action feature of its own right.
This is not a "second-string" Peckinpah. This is a turkey. The writers should have been drummed out of the business. The ninja stuff at the end was unbelievably bad.
That's really rare!
Anyway, it was good but not great, and so, that's a good reason not to see the original one; although it of course could be way better...
As a brief bit of intro graphics tells us, the Killer Elite are a group of mercenaries - a private company who are usually hired by the CIA when they don't want any blowback. OK, I can surely buy that, and it sounds almost prescient coming from 1975. As the credits role (another affectation of the 70's) we see hands running wire and placing plastique. Then the screen widens and we see Caan, and Duvall jumping into a car along with their "sheep" (think of the pair as shepherds, protecting the sheep until sheering). For some unknown reason the building blows up, and the trio make a getaway, riffing bravado and machismo all the way.
They make their way to a safe house, filled with prostitutes (ok, so far you have a gratuitous explosion, and now gratuitous T&A). Finally, Duvall and Caan are given instruction to take their sheep to another hideout, where an extraction will be made. Before their sheep can be turned over to the paying party, things go terribly wrong and Caan gets capped in both elbow and knee. Peckinpah decides to spend considerable film time showing the operating room and then the physical therapy Caan suffers through. Of course this allows Sam to introduce a love interest (the therapist), as well as setting up a scene in which the two heads of the "company" inform him that his partner has gone rogue and that, oh by the way, due to his injuries he'll be given a demotion to a desk job.
Caan remains glib throughout this ordeal, only showing his frustration when he yells at a visitor to leave him alone after the visitor witnesses Caan falling while doing PT. The visitor, by the way, plays a substantial part later in the film - so this introduction to the character was indeed an odd one.
In a nod to the kung fu rage of the early 70's, Caan's recovery involves him turning to martial arts, becoming especially adept at using his cane (hmm, Caan's cane, or is it Canes' Caan - or maybe I'm still hearing Will Shatner yelling Kaaaaaaahn). This emphasis on fu fu is important as the CIA contacts the agency and asks for a team to shepherd a couple of Chinese politicos for a couple of days until they can return to China (why they came to SF in the first place, and why they will return is a Byzantine tale that frankly makes little to no sense whatsoever). Caan is told by his handler that his former partner is now working for the "other side" and will be gunning for the sheep. Caan sees this as his opportunity for redemption, so assembles a team, which includes the aforementioned Bo Hopkins as a marksman with a penchant for pulling the trigger, and Burt Young as the politically and socially savvy driver. The two are polar opposites - Burt so quirky and yet a natural actor, where you can believe every corny word or mannerism that emanates from him; whereas Bo is wooden and totally unbelievable.
There are action scenes galore - some pretty well filmed while others... well, let's just say that Peckinpah unintentionally was paying homage to 50's westerns. There are car chases and an absurd scene involving a motorcycle cop, as well as some serious inferences of double crossing and double dealing - the former a distraction and the latter holding our interest. It all leads up to a climatic scene late at night at the SF docks, which works in an odd, rather stylized way. The film could have ended there, but Sam decides to add yet another double cross that involves Caan transporting his sheep to "the mothball fleet" in Suison Bay. To those not acquainted with the San Francisco bay area - the mothball fleet is just that - row upon row of rusting WWII transport ships all at anchor - the Navy decommissioned them and now has no idea of what to do with them. Anyhow, this gives Sam the opportunity to do some nice camera work, but the following fight between several opposing forces and involves ninjas as well as a calling out and sword fight between the two Chinese political rivals, is way over the top.
I suppose there was supposed to be a message in all this somewhere about mercenaries (or soldiers in general) who were "just following orders" - but it gets lost amongst all the odd characters and jargon.
There are some good, if dated moments in this film, especially the on location shots of a 1975 San Francisco (I just love the billboard advertising the AMC Pacer!), but I found the direction a bit lacking surprisingly, and the script simultaneously too clever and too ridiculous, caught up in minutia while overlooking some glaring holes and patchwork add ons. One example is a little scene where Bo, the marksman and gun expert points out that a guy dressed up as a cop isn't really a cop because he was holding a Glock and he knew that SF cops ALL used 38 Caliber Colts... To which I was thinking - all but ONE cop, who always carried a 44 Magnum - ah, gotta love the 70's.
When Mike Locken is left crippled by his best friend George Hansen ,the organisation he works for thinks he is useless and puts him out to pasture.
Locken decides to defy the odds and for his reward ,he is given the task of protecting Yuen Chung who is being targeted by his old pal and a group of Ninjas.
Sounds a bit silly right? Well yeah it is a little and the meterial is way below Peckinpah ,buts that not to say it has its moments.
James Caan is great as Locken and Duvall is just as good as the treacherous Hansen.
But for my Money its Burt Young as slobby wheelman Mac and Bo Hopkins as guncrazy Jerome Miller who steal the movie and provide the best comedy moments.
Of course the action sequences are deftly handled but compared to the Wild Bunch it feels a little bit mechanical .
Good Peckinpah then ,but a long way from his best work
"You're so busy doing their dirty work, you can't tell who the bad guys are."-Mac (Burt Young)
Awesome action sequences. I don't think Sam respected the ninja very much though, as they were easy terminated by a half cripple no less. I guess alot of people didn't care for this Peckinpah outing, it's okay Sam, I'll play it again.
"Win a few, lose a few."-Mike Locken (James Caan)