Sunday, May 1, 2016

Sam Peckinpah Goes Kung Fu in "The Killer Elite"

At the outset of The Killer Elite (1975), Mike and George appear to be two happy-go-lucky mercenaries that work for a CIA contractor. That changes when George (Robert Duvall) kills a defector they're protecting--then shoots Mike (James Caan) in the knee and elbow. As George stands over his bleeding pal, he states flatly: "(You) just retired. Enjoy it."

As Mike recovers from extensive surgery, his two bosses (Arthur Hill and Gig Young) visit him to deliver good news and bad news. The good is that he will receive $1500 in disability a month (a tidy sum compared to government employees). The bad news: "Given a year, maybe you'll be able to walk up a flight of stairs. That leg of yours will never be anything but a wet noodle."

George (Duvall) and Mike (Caan)
prior to Mike's "retirement."
Fueled by determination and perhaps a little revenge, Mike makes an impressive recovery, but now wears a brace on his left arm and walks with a cane. However, he still wants to get back in the business. Mike gets his opportunity when he's asked to protect an Asian diplomat from an assassination attempt by none other than George.

Unlike most of his films, Sam Peckinpah was not involved with The Killer Elite from the beginning. He joined it when his plans for a thriller called The Insurance Company hit a snag. In fact, in the book Peckinpah, author Garner Simmons includes this telegram sent by studio executive Mike Medavoy to Peckinpah: "I am confirming to you, per your note of January 27th that you are not to do any writing on the script."

The Japanese poster emphasized
the kung fu!
Instead, Marc Norman (Shakespeare in Love) and Stirling Silliphant (In the Heat of the Night) penned the screenplay. Although Robert Hopkins' source novel Monkey in the Middle took place in England, the film's locale was shifted to San Francisco. Silliphant, a martial arts enthusiast who trained under Bruce Lee, added several kung fu elements. Caan's character practices martial arts as part of his rehabilitation and Ninja assassins also try to kill the Asian diplomat played by Mako. Silliphant even wrote a role for his wife Tiana Alexandra, who held a brown belt at the time (and also studied under Lee).

Given his lack of involvement in the script, it's surprising that The Killer Elite comes across as a typical Peckinpah film. In fact, it works as a thematic sequel (of sorts) to my favorite Peckinpah movie: The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970). In both films, the protagonists are betrayed by a friend (or friends) and left to die (one could argue that Mike "dies" when his profession is apparently taken away from him). And both films focus on the rehabilitation and, ultimately, reinvention of their protagonists. In the concluding scene of The Killer Elite, it's obvious that Mike has undergone a life-changing transformation.

Director Sam Peckinpah.
While The Killer Elite doesn't rank with Sam Peckinpah's best films, it remains an interesting outing that makes outstanding use of the San Francisco locales. Plus, Caan gives one of his best performances. My only real criticism centers on the martial arts fight sequences. While I love a good kung fu fight, Peckinpah's attempts come across as pedestrian--especially compared to the action films being made during the same period by Bruce Lee and others in Asia. Peckinpah should have mandated the substitution of a couple of good shootouts. With this film, though, he probably didn't have the clout to do that.


  1. Not normally a Peckinpah fan, but this one has MEMORIES attached.

    Duvall and Caan in another picture together ain't nothing to sneeze at!

    1. It's that final scene between Caan and Duvall that makes the movie for me.

    2. The 70's...what a decade. It's interesting that the workaday actors from then became the top tier of the later decades. Duvall, in the 70's was a second-stringer of sorts, but he became the Laurence Olivier of later US film. Caan seemed to go down a notch in his later career.