The Killer Elite (1975)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: Betrayed by a friend.

Mike Locken (James Caan) and George Hansen (Robert Duvall) are two longtime friends and hit men working for a private agency affiliated with the CIA to carry-out covert missions. During their latest assignment Mike is shocked to see George turn on him by shooting him in the knee and elbow. While Mike is able to survive the incident he is forced to go through a long and painful rehabilitation and due to the injuries is no longer considered employable as a hit man. Mike though refuses to concede and goes through martial arts training were he learns to use a cane both for protection and offensive action. He assembles his old team while vowing to get revenge on George, but fails to realize that there’s someone else behind the scenes who’s pulling-the-strings and far more dangerous.

By the mid-70’s director Sam Peckinpah had achieved a strong following of admirers with his ground breaking action films that took violence and the way it was portrayed in films to a whole new level. While he had his share of critics his movies did well at the box office, which should’ve been enough to get him any assignment he wanted, but his notoriously cantankerous behavior on the set and alcoholism made him virtually unemployable. Mike Medavoy, the head of United Artists, decided to give him a reprieve by hiring him on to direct his next project, but it was under strict conditions that allowed the studio to have final say over all aspects, which in turn made Peckinpah’s presence virtually null and void. The film lacks the edginess of his other more well known pictures. The action really never gets going and much of it was intentionally toned down in order to get a PG-rating. The tension is also lacking and great majority of it is quite boring. There’s even brief moments of humor, which only undermines the story and makes it even more of a misfire.

I liked the casting of Caan, who has disowned the film, which he gives a 0 out of 10, and Duvall, this marked their 5th film together, but the script doesn’t play-up their relationship enough. I was hoping for more of a psychological angle like why would a loyal friend suddenly turn on his partner, which doesn’t really get examined. Duvall has much less screen time and there’s no ultimate confrontation between the two, which with a story like this should’ve been a must. The drama also shifts in the third act to Caan taking on Arthur Hill, who plays a undercover double-agent, which isn’t as interesting or impactful.

Caan’s shooting gets badly botched. I will give Peckinpah credit as the surgery scenes including the removal of the bullet is quite graphic, but how Caan is able to find help after he is shot is never shown. The assault occurs in a remote location, so technically he could’ve died without anyone knowing, so how he was able to find his way out and get the attention of a medical staff needed to be played-out and not just glossed-over like it is.

The introduction of Ninja warriors was another mistake. This was courtesy of Stirling Silliphant who had been hired to rewrite the script and wanted this element put-in since he and his girlfriend Tiana Alexander had studied martial arts under Bruce Lee and felt this would offer some excitement. The result is campy though a one critic, Pauline Kael, like it as she considered it a ‘self-aware satire’ though I was groaning more than laughing.

Some felt that Peckinpah had sold-out and this movie really made it seem like he had. Nothing gels or is inspired though I will at least credit him with the building explosion at the beginning, which was an actual implosion of an old fire house that he became aware was going to happen and quickly revised the shooting schedule, so he’d be able to capture it from across the street and then use it in the film, which does help though everything after it falls flat.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: December 17, 1975

Runtime: 2 Hours 3 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Sam Peckinpah

Studio: United Artists

Available: DVD, Blu-ray (Region B/2), Tubi, Amazon Video, YouTube

2 responses to “The Killer Elite (1975)

  1. I knew a crew member and visited a set in a shrouded cabin on pier 70, where Peckinpaw said about his career :: “I’m an old whore, I go where I’m kicked.”

  2. I would still like to see this as I watched The Osterman Weekend the other day and enjoyed it. That was the last film Peckinpah directed.

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