Director Sam Peckinpah was well-known for his violently graphic and introspective films, as well as his incredibly difficult nature that ended up dooming his career. By the mid-1970s Peckinpah struggled to get films made after infamously having his work edited behind his back and battling drug and alcohol addiction. After a successful turn directing a television episode called Noon Wine – included as a bonus feature on Twilight Time’s Killer Elite Blu-ray – he was able to spark a brief resurgence directing this espionage thriller.
Mike Locken (James Caan) is a works for a private security firm with deep ties to the CIA. After he’s betrayed by his long-time partner, George (Robert Duvall), Mike must endure a lengthy rehabilitation period before getting his chance at redemption by protecting an Asian political figure (Mako).
The Killer Elite feels very un-Peckinpah, possibly the reason for its critical drubbing back in 1975. The unwieldily elements of an espionage thriller are obviously out of Peckinpah’s depth, and yet they should be familiar to him as several of his films contain political attacks. The opening text crawl, containing an “interview” with a person associated with these types of CIA black ops firms denies their existence as “preposterous.” Peckinpah has a laugh at that, showing through the films events that the world turns around these types of companies, and several movies since have focused on these types of groups (Haywire immediately springs to mind). If only Peckinpah had settled with a satirical take on these films, inserting his own political views in a drama, maybe The Killer Elite wouldn’t feel as confused as it comes off.
For all that though much of the film works. The first fifteen minutes are perfect, establishing the relationship between Mike and George with little overt exposition. We see them host a party where Mike is the lady man’s to George’s more reserved flirt. From there the camera tracks them on a lengthy car ride to a job as they discuss things only two men who have slowly come to learn about each other through these car rides discuss; they talk about sex, sing songs, and generally espouse a friendship that should last forever. After that the movie kicks off with a literal gunshot to the head as George assassinates a person they’re watching in a safe house and ends up crippling Mike. Even then their friendship is felt without too much discussion. George tells Mike he’s retired and leaves. Their friendship running too deep for him to murder his partner.
With Mike out of commission he goes through a lengthy, and painfully genuine, rehabilitation to reuse his leg and arm that were shot in the preceding scenes. This is where Caan’s acting flourishes as he endures obviously intense pain with a grimace. This isn’t a man showing you how macho he is, unable to showcase deep emotion, but realizing this is but a brief taste of the true pain to come. The movie really settles into events, drawing out the rehab process so as not to give the audience false expectations. Mike isn’t immediately cured after a few seconds of trying to walk or pick something up. This is a daily struggle and Peckinpah takes the time to show us this. It’s a true showcase for Caan’s quiet stoicism.
Peckinpah is the master of subtle characterization, content to spend more time with bombastic violence that holding the audience’s hand about his characters. This is why the friendship/double-cross between Mike and George is so well-done. Complimenting Caan is Robert Duvall who we know even less about as George. His motivations never come off as entirely clear, but Duvall’s sensitivity to his friend is all that’s required. Burt Young’s comment to Mike at a later point: “you’re so busy doin’ their dirty work, you can’t tell who the bad guys are” is true, but George isn’t all bad or he could have easily killed his best mate.
With all this emotionally charged set-up the movie loses a lot once the espionage returns and Mike seeks revenge against his best friend while protecting a man named Yuen Chung. There’s talk of double crossing and triple crossing, the appearance of mysterious agents played by Gig Young (as the head of the company Mike works for) and Bo Hopkins, and Rocky star Burt Young as a cabbie friend of Mike’s. With all these characters and situations, spread liberally across a beautifully photographed San Francisco, it’s easy to forget this started out as a revenge story. Maybe that’s the problem; Peckinpah was so intent on telling a story of two individuals struggling with their feelings and having murder on their mind that he forgot to remember this was meant to entertain the masses. Or, in true Peckinpah fashion, he started out making a dark spy thriller and decided the story between two friends was more compelling, and in this case Peckinpah is right.
The third act is suspenseful, containing plenty of action, shoot-outs, and martial arts fight scenes, but the heart seems to be missing from the first act. The George and Mike revenge feels incidental to other events and its resolution isn’t entirely satisfying. The third act does more to situate the friendship between Mike and Young’s Mac which isn’t a friendship of equals, but more in the vein of Lenny and George from Of Mice and Men. Caan is still good, but it’s evident he’s in action man mode by then.
The Killer Elite is two very distinct films with one having the edge over the other. As a whole, there’s nothing particularly bad about the film, but the first half hour is introspective, complex, and well-acted. The second half plays more as a straight-up spy thriller with a lot of action but nothing too remarkable in the way of relationships. As much as I criticized what it was missing, I was still compelled by Caan’s mission and conflict in hunting down his friend. The new Twilight Time Blu-ray looks and sounds great, as well as contains the Peckinpah directed “Noon Wine” as a bonus feature (on top of the isolated score and essay by Julie Kirgo).
Buy direct from Screen Archives here.