1/4, 1970s, Review, Sam Peckinpah, Thriller

The Killer Elite

#13 in my ranking of Sam Peckinpah’s filmography.

Having trashed his reputation across all of Hollywood, Sam Peckinpah could only return to Martin Baum and United Artists, this time on a much shorter leash than with Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, and work with a story based on an unremarkable novel (Monkey in the Middle by Robert Syd Hopkins). The end result feels like Peckinpah had simply no interest in the material, treating it completely unseriously while derailing the shoot to just have a good time with his core cast. I really get the sense that Gene Siskel’s adage of wondering about a film made regarding the cast having lunch being more interesting than the end film would apply here. I think Peckinpah, Caan, Duvall, and Young probably had a blast on set. I did not have a blast watching, though.

I have two major complaints around this film: the structure and the pacing. I largely dismiss most comments about pacing because they generally get used by people as a crutch when they can’t explain why they don’t like something, so they latch onto pacing because they got bored. Pacing’s a funny thing, and a steady, methodical pace can work on something like an Andrei Tarkovsky movie, but not on a thriller. The Killer Elite feels like an accidental effort to recreate the joys of Howard HawksRio Bravo, the ultimate hangout movie. So much of this film is Caan borderline goofing off with either Robert Duvall or Burt Young while Peckinpah shoots everything around the few action sequences with such laconic detachment it almost feels like Ryan Reynolds would be the only way to make this any better. It needed a quick wit to maintain interest, but everything outside of a couple of scenes tightly focused on guy bonding just feels detached from the actual story. It’s a thriller at war with a hangout movie, instead of there being any effort to actually combine the two in any way.

Anyway, Mike (Caan) and George (Duvall) work for a private company that contracts with the CIA to do certain bits of dirty work within the US (the CIA is not allowed to do work in the US, not that this movie spends any time explaining that), and after they successfully rescue a foreign national around San Francisco, the two party it up in purely Peckinpah style: with lots of drinking and some prostitutes. The stuff that dominates this early part of the film is Mike and George simply being guys around each other, and it really just feels like Caan and Duvall goofing off in front of the camera. It’s not deep, and it’s not particularly interesting. What it is, though, is the foundation that George is about to tear down by betraying Mike.

Now, the structure part of my irritation with this film is really around its first half. The first half is Mike and George bonding, George betraying Mike, and then a surprisingly extended sequence of Mike recovering from the violence inflicted upon him. I mean, it’s the entire first hour of the film. Do we get great character work in this first hour to fill this lack of plot action? Something like the first half of Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia? Nope, not in the least. The central problem around this is Mike. I’m not sure I’d go so far as to call Mike an actual character. I don’t know what actually drives him. Before he’s approached by his boss (Arthur Hill) to protect a Chinese national in San Francisco, Yuen Chung (Mako), it’s supposed to be George’s presence that convinces him to go back into the field, but we’ve watched him lazily spend the previous twenty minutes recovering instead of readying himself for vengeance. Also, later in the film, when this subplot gets its conclusion, the movie just keeps moving beyond it as though not much interesting had just occurred.

Mike assembles his team, a grand two people, including Mac (Young), the car guy, and Jerome (Bo Hopkins), the gun guy. Picking up Chung and his daughter Tommie (Toni Alexander), they get into a gun battle in Chinatown (reminiscent of the opening gunfight in The Wild Bunch), and probably the most entertaining scene in the whole film where Mac discovers a bomb under the car. It’s outright funny, and it is largely due to Young’s understated performance in the face of danger.

This is also where the movie should feel like the whole plot is picking up steam, but there’s a little moment that shows how disengaged from the whole thing Peckinpah seemed to be. George and his partner have just failed at taking out Yuen, and instead of trying to give chase again, they just saunter away. Not only do they just saunter down the ladder from the roof where they’re hiding how, they just kind of have an easy conversation about trying to catch up, eventually. This is all happening while a bomb has been attached to the bottom of Mac’s car somehow, but George doesn’t talk like he knows it’s there at all, much less that he’ll think it’ll slow them down at all. It’s so odd.

For reasons, the finale leads to the docks where the good guys hide out for the night where Tommie shows how she’s a ninja (Peckinpah said he watched a bunch of Bruce Lee movies to prepare himself for the film, but it was obviously not enough because the kung fu action is laughable). George ends up getting killed in the shootout, and instead of it feeling like the resolution of some large character-driven plot in the film, the movie and Mike move on as though George was just more cannon fodder for their guns. It’s really weird. And then we get the final beats on a fleet of abandoned warships (a very neat sight, for sure), but it’s dominated by kung fu action. Seeing kung fu in the middle of the day, poorly filmed, is more hilarious than exciting. And then there’s something like a sequel stinger.

This is easily Peckinpah’s worst film up to this point. The disconnected feeling of something like The Getaway is compounded by the fact that no one seems to care at all about either story or even basic thrills. There are moments here and there that entertain, really mostly around Young and the early scenes between Duvall and Caan are amusing in a certain, loose way, but Peckinpah’s personal problems and addictions were simply too much in the way for him to work effectively anymore. This is also where Peckinpah discovered cocaine, and none of that energy found its way into this moribund film that never seems to move with any purpose.

I assume that the tight leash that Martin Baum had on Peckinpah was all about money and scheduling, not about what was actually filmed. If it were, I can’t imagine Baum being happy with dailies. There’s no fire to this film. It’s surprisingly flaccid.

Rating: 1/4

5 thoughts on “The Killer Elite”

  1. I actually really like this movie.

    The time spend with Duvall and Caah is essential, both for the the gut punch of the betrayal and the final death at the end (it’s noteworthy that Caan’s character still can’t shoot his friend and in fact gets violently pissed when….the real hero of the movie drops him). If we didn’t see the friendship, the whole story doesn’t work. And it does work, for me.

    This movies treats violence seriously. It treats injury seriously. In an art from where, oh, someone can have a caesarian section and then go running and rolling away from a multi-kilometer space donut less than an hour later, it’s nice to see the human body treated realistically.

    The gunplay is also good and that makes me happy as well. Seriously, Jerome is the real hero of the movie, he’s the real killer elite. He’s professional, efficient and not a neurotic mess.

    The kung fu does indeed suck, they should have hired the guy teaching Tai Chi, because that was legit. But it’s not a kung fu movie, so it bothers me less. Burt Young bothers me more, this feels like his character from Rocky had a second life in California. He doesn’t even try to play the two as different.

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    1. I think the pieces are there for an entertaining thriller, but no one really seems to take much seriously and there’s no real sense of thrills. I think the early goofing off between Caan and Duvall is one part of the sort of stuff that makes a good character base, but it feels incomplete without any actual characters to speak of. It feels more like Caan and Duvall themselves goofing off rather their characters.

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