I'm not trying to be a hero! I'M FIGHTING THE DRAGON!!

The Killer Elite

tn_thekillereliteTHE KILLER ELITE is Sam Peckinpah’s don’t-be-naive-these-covert-ops-are-happening-all-the-time thriller kinda like MUNICH. It starts with straight up perfection: a title card explaining that “This film is a work of fiction. There is no company called Communications Integrity NOR ComTeg and the thought that the C.I.A. might employ such an organization for any purpose is, of course, preposterous.”

James Caan and Robert Duvall star as Locken and Hansen, two hard-drinking, lady-loving partners who claim to have never heard of the C.I.A. even though we just saw them bomb a building. They’ve spent enough time together that they’re always singing made up songs and saying stupid jokes that seem like you had to be there. But they’re obviously having fun.

When they go to a safe house, Locken goes to take a shower and Hansen turns traitor, killing the defector they’re supposed to be protecting and then trying to cripple his partner. When he’s standing there naked with a gun pointed at him Locken doesn’t even get scared because he can only comprehend it as a joke. He really thought he knew that guy, now he’s shooting him in the shower? He never took him for a shower-shooter.

mp_thekillereliteSince Locken is kind of an asshole, turning him into an underdog by crippling him is a good way to make him a little more sympathetic. Alot of movies would skip to two years later or whatever and have him walking with a cane and out of work. But Peckinpah shows the whole process from being drugged and goofy to being told he can’t work again, getting the casts off, getting the braces on, practicing walking, eventually beating the predictions, practicing martial arts with a sensei, getting good at it, living with his nurse.

Then of course they decide they need him again. Locken is the best guy to protect their client (Mako), who was attacked by ninjas at the airport (we’ve all been there) and now has that fuckin rat Hansen after him. Locken takes the job provided he can choose his own team. He picks Miller (Bo Hopkins), a gunman everybody says is a psycho, and Mac (Paulie himself, Burt Young [not the talking parrot Paulie, but the Paulie from ROCKY. The talking parrot Paulie was Jay Mohr I believe, and he is not in this), a driver who’s been out of the life for a long time but comes back on for his old friend. Sorry, wife.

They quickly find themselves in full-on urban combat, shoot outs in broad daylight, exchanging fire from their armoured taxi to the San Francisco rooftops. They get chased by cops and don’t want to hurt them but might have to. There’s a great scene, both tense and funny, where a motorcycle cop pulls up and starts asking questions while Mac is under the car trying to remove a bomb they just realized somebody planted. Mac keeps his priorities straight and kind of ignores the cop while he dismantles the thing rather than getting them blown up. Then he hands the cop the bomb.

I noticed Tom Clancy’s name on the opening credits. I thought that was weird but, not knowing much about Clancy, I figured it kinda made sense. He must’ve had a background in intelligence agencies, or had gotten a reputation as an expert on them or something, so he was cast in the movie as kind of a nod to his work, or to add credibility to the production. But as I started reading about it I realized that no, Clancy was not involved in intelligence at all, he was just an insurance salesman who made it big as a novelist, and not until years after this movie. Then I realized this was a totally different Tom Clancy. Whoops. Just one of those Tom Clancy mixups we all do sometimes.

At the end, yes, there is some ninja fighting, some of it in Peckinpah’s trademark slo-mo. (Somebody told me Monte Hellman or somebody really directed this stuff because Peckinpah was too drunk, I can’t seem to verify that though.) At one point Locken uses his cane to fight off multiple ninjas. It’s stiff and slow by modern standards of fight choreography, but unless you got a stone heart you gotta admit it’s pretty cool to see James Caan beating up ninjas with a cane. Come on, man.

mp_thekillerelitebOne unexpected angle on the character is that he seems more consumed by getting his groove back than getting revenge. He doesn’t seem to hate Hansen even after all this. So although it’s kind of like DYING OF THE LIGHT with a body ailment instead of a brain one to overcome it doesn’t have the same quality of a stubborn crusade to kill a guy. It’s sport – just some guys competing in what they’re good at. When it turns out his bosses screwed him it makes him sympathize even more with his betrayer. Why be loyal? Why believe in something? Get that money. It’s not a racket for good guys.

This one feels a little melancholy, but not joyless. I like the camaraderie between the three rejects, the loyalty of Mac, the casual brutality of Miller, the sometimes humorous dialogue. At the end, while Locken watches his charge formally duel a ninja (which were more of novelty back then rather than an important part of life like they are now), he starts asking condescendingly about their costumes and stuff.

I wouldn’t say this has the poetry of the best Peckinpah. And I guess it wouldn’t, since this was a for-hire gig he got at a time when he couldn’t really get any other jobs. But it’s a well done ’70s thriller about a world where it’s hard to tell who’s the good guys and who’s the bad guys. You just gotta guess, I suppose. Or maybe everybody’s the bad guy. But they should try to be better.

NOTE: The Statham movie KILLER ELITE is not a remake, though it takes place in the same world. There’s no “THE” in the title, so I don’t know why you would even think they were related. Pay attention.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Friday, February 20th, 2015 at 11:47 am and is filed under Action, Reviews, Thriller. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

41 Responses to “The Killer Elite”

  1. Always had a soft spot for this one. Glad to see you dug it. I really like Peckinpah’s mainstream cash-grab flicks (The Getaway being my fave of them – it’s a fucking masterwork compared to most director’s “for-hire” gigs). I love outrageous stories told with a focus on emotional stakes and consequences.

    I’ve been on a Caan kick recently as I finally appreciate just what a fantastic movie-star he was. Watching Misery, Rollerball, Thief and The Gambler again more or less back to back honestly blew me away. He’s pretty special, and probably unique to the era in which he rose to fame.

  2. Vern, I can’t tell you how much I love this site and what you’re doing. I’m just sorry it’s taken me so long to get here.

    A couple of things: Arthur Hill got to revisit his CIA boss running covert operations from this in The Amateur, with John Savage in the lead as a CIA cryptographer (not to be confused with Amateur, which is one of those amnesiac guy-prostitute-porn-writing ex-nun triangle movies; you’re so right about the importance of that definite article!)

    But if you want to continue the CIA covert operations theme, and link back to Peckinpah, any chance of a review of Extreme Prejudice?

    Telf, have you tried El Dorado? It’s really not Rio Bravo, but it’s fun to watch a young Caan play against Wayne and Mitchum in the young gun part.

  3. Peckinpahs final, somewhat troubled film THE OSTERMAN WEEKEND, is a good companion to this one. A bunch of ex- ops, spies and generally shady people convene for a weekend of spy stuff. It also has Rutger Hauer and crossbows going for it.

  4. I’d echo the previous commenters’ affection for this movie, it’s a mess but a very unique and likeable one. I really dig the setting of the finale, it would be cool to explore the mothball fleet at Suisun Bay. I understand there’s a only few ships left out of what used to be hundred and they’ll scrapped before too long.

    IIRC the commentary track on the Blu-ray mentions that the guy who played Duvall’s partner, Hank Hamilton, was a martial artist and also the film’s fight choreographer. He’s also the guy who gets thrashed by Tak Kubota in a karate match in Charles Bronson’s THE MECHANIC. Kubota would also become Caan’s instructor for years after as a result of this movie. They reunited onscreen in Wes Anderson’s BOTTLE ROCKET. But anyway, with the amount of martial arts talent involved you do wish the fights were better. Hell, when I spotted Dan Inosanto in the airport scene, I thought it was really going to get good. But no, not really.

  5. Borg 9: That’s funny, I just read the book THE AMATEUR was based on, which was pretty solid, mostly-low-key-but-with-some-creative-killings spy fiction. I had no idea there was a movie. I’ll have to check it out.

  6. Two years later, during the making of one of his best, CROSS OF IRON, it’s said that Peckinpah drank 3 whole bottles of either bourbon or vodka each day and slept for only 3 or 4 hours. To be able to live like that and still make masterpieces he must have had one hell of a team around him. On several dvd commentaries people like LQ Jones and James Coburn talk about how he could be a real asshole, getting his stars into barfights and such, the lousy catering on his sets and how he you could get only half a day’s good work out of him before he got to drunk. But they kept coming back, because they knew that the end result would be good.

  7. Just like the song from the old Sons of Hercules tv series goes. Peckinpah is “a man as men should be”. Oh wait….

  8. Borg 9: Yup – I have plenty of love for El Dorado – and definitely prefer Caan to Ricky Nelson.

    And I’ll second the request for a review of EXTREME PREJUDICE. Great bad ass cast (Nolte, Boothe, Ironside (not Raymond Burr), Clancy Brown, Rip Torn and William Forsythe) and Milius on script. It veers into Peckinpah parody I think, but it’s one of the few sincere 80s attempts at his tone.

    I know you always have lots on yer plate – but more Peckinpah please Mr. Vern!

  9. You know what else Caan was good in, albeit in a supporting role(and sporting a rather broad Irish accent)? THE GLORY GUYS, which was written by Peckinpah and carries over some cast members from his MAJOR DUNDEE.

    Re: EXTREME PREJUDICE. I was fascinated to read in a recent interview with Michael Ironside that they cut out a large chunk of the story involving his character and a CIA agent played by Andrew Robinson. His reasoning was that this added dimension inadvertently made him the center of the web so out it went. It would be interesting to see how that plays out but without knowing anything else I wonder if that would spoil the third act reveal.

  10. I… kind of liked some elements of this movie, but its handling of the Asian characters is hilariously stupid.

  11. I guess when people hired Peckinpah for a job they expected to get something special from him, and where willing to endure his antics. Of the 14 films he directed there aren’t many that are uncharacteristic for him – maybe except CONVOY and THE OSTERMAN WEEKEND – so I kind of doubt the director for hire thing a little bit. We know he took THE OSTERMAN WEEKEND because he was planning a new western. And I guess the two music videos he did for Julian Lennon weren’t really his cup of tea. But the rest, I don’t know.

  12. I like EL DORADO much better than RIO BRAVO. I think it is funnier, more actionpacked. I do miss Walter Brennan, though.

  13. RIO BRAVO, EL DORADO and RIO LOBO are all great. I think BRAVO is the best one. But as sidekicks go Mithum and Caan are hard to beat. And Jack Elam is the best crazy-old-fart-with-a-shotgun ever.

  14. Like others, I’ve been watching a lot of James Caan movies lately–The Gambler, Thief, The Godfather, and I’ve got The Tale of the Princess Kaguya in the queue (he does voice work on the English dub). (I tried to throw The Killer Elite on my list, but Netflix doesn’t have it). Caan’s a really underrated actor, and it was great to see him pretty much carry movies like The Gambler and Thief.

  15. Shoot McKay: Don’t get me wrong, EL DORADO is great, but I think the less action packed pace is what makes RIO BRAVO special. And while I yield to no one in my admiration of Mitchum, Dean Martin’s Dude really is the last word on drunken sheriffs.

  16. Vern, please review Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.

  17. Apparently, Elvis Presley wanted the Ricky Nelson role in RIO BRAVO, but the colonel wouldn’t let him unless he got top billing. On the other hand Montgomery Clift refused to do the movie because Wayne and Brennan were two of the nastiest homophobes in Hollywood.

  18. Peckinpahs Best:

    1. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid
    2. The Wild Bunch
    3. Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia

    4. Ride the High Country
    5. Straw Dogs
    6. The Ballad of Cable Hogue

    7. The Getaway
    8. Major Dundee

    (never saw Junior Bonner & Cross of Iron so i can’t rate them)

  19. Just for the record, SurfiNerd, there’s no movie in the history of man that’s above THE WILD BUNCH on any kind of list. Oh, and CROSS OF IRON’s number two.

  20. I feel your pain pegsman. Wild Bunch is a masterpiece, and the much better organized Film. Almost perfect, with a legendary pay off. But as an work of Art Pat Garret comes much closer to what makes a Guy like Peckinpah tick.
    I mean Pat Garret hunts his friends down, not just for the promise of “living the good life”. Garret knows the West is going down, and the Cattle Barons, Politicians & Corporations are taking over. So he partys hard one last time with a bunch of whores (great scene), and starts slowly to hunt Billys Gang down. I think Peckinpah identified with Garret, all the shit eating, and buckling down, he had to put up with in Hollywood, just to get his vision through. Like Garret in the end, it wore him down, he felt like a sell-out. So for me PG & BtK is the more interesting, lasting Film. Like “Apocalypse Now” it’s a mess, but it creeps into you, and stays.

  21. I’d actually agree SurfiNerd. The Wild Bunch is better ( (in that it’s less flawed) but Pat Garrett is so much richer. I could talk about it all day every day.

  22. I don’t want to burn my powder if there is a WILD BUNCH review on the horizon, but there really aren’t anything in PAT GARRETT that weren’t in BUNCH first. I would actually put CROSS OF IRON in between those two, because that’s where Peckinpah gets really political.

  23. FYI for EXTREME PREJUDICE fans (like me!): there’s a Japanese all region Blu-Ray that looks absolutely fantastic. I got mine from yesasia.com. This is not a spam comment, I swear. I reviewed EP on my personal blog long, long ago: http://runningthevoodoodown.blogspot.com/2005/05/cowboy-poetry.html

  24. Love ya pegsman, but you couldn’t be more wrong. Peckinpah’s approach to Pat Garrett is miles away from The Wild Bunch. One clear example (among many) is his portrayal of violence. In The Wild Bunch it’s shocking, horrifying, cathartic, rousing and even redemptive. In Pat Garrett it’s clumsy, stupid, desensitized and mundane. The Wild Bunch is about bad men redeeming themselves through violence. Pat Garrett is about a flawed man trapped in a system that will force him to destroy himself through an act of violence. The Bunch buck the system and go out on their own terms, in Pat Garrett bucking the system is never an option. I could go and on and probably will when I have more time.

  25. I’m sure I could have been more wrong if I tried, David. I was perhaps a little hasty in my defense of BUNCH there. But I hope we can agree that some of PAT’s many themes were touched upon in the former movie?

  26. EXTREME PREJUDICE is great. I am not sure I will upgrade to a blu ray version. Sometime picture quality can work against a a movie. For example, a pristine HD 4k transfer of TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE is not something I think I would like. I may be wrong, but I like some grit with my movies. At least some of them.

  27. There is definitely some overlap, but it’s all done differently. So while both films deal with a former outlaw tracking down his old friend and that friend’s gang, the way it’s explored is totally different. This could be said for almost all of the film’s themes.

    Look at Pat Garrett’s brilliant opening. We start with Garrett as an old man getting shot and then the film flashbacks to Billy and his gang blowing the heads off chickens. The scene is intercut to show the Kid shooting Garrett and then Garrett himself joins in the chicken shooting which is then intercut so that he’s shooting himself. Since it’s mentioned at the beginning that Garrett killed the Kid and since we see Garrett himself getting killed, the film’s fatalism is pervasive throughout. There will be no redemption here. Not only that, but the film shows that the act of killing the Kid is what eventually killed Garrett, almost entirely in visuals. It’s audacious and masterful and there’s nothing in The Wild Bunch like it. There’s really nothing like it in any other Western I can think of.

    That strange, dreamlike quality is present throughout the rest of Pat Garrett. Look at how it portrays a population desensitized by frontier violence. Charlie Bowdre plays cards with the Kid and O’Folliard after getting gut-shot. The townspeople of Lincoln stand around and watch while the Kid kills two deputies and slowly escapes the Lincoln County Jail. A man eats beans while the Kid’s gang kills a couple bounty hunters. A family watches silently as the Kid and Alamosa Bill have a duel to the death. The Kid’s own gang just watches Garrett leave after he’s killed the Kid (there are more minor examples throughout). Or listen to everyone’s “elegiac” stories about the frontier, they’re all violent, terrible stories, remembered fondly. The film has someone telling a story in just about every scene. The killing of Buckshot Roberts, the murder of Carlisle, the killing of U.S. Christmas, the whore who got her “tit shot off”, the man’s son killed in a duel and buried with the trading post door, Alamosa Bill killing a man for accusing him of cheating, the man who gets bit through the neck by a rattler after someone put it in his blanket, etc. etc. Since the film opens with Garrett’s death, it becomes one of those elegiac, terrible stories itself.

    I could go on and on about how Pat Garrett’s characters, structure, tone, tempo, cinematography, music, dialogue, production design and even costume design are way different from anything seen in The Wild Bunch. I mean, even on the simplest of levels The Wild Bunch is clearly a rousing adventure story about redemption (albeit one infused with great depth) while Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is a sad, slow tone poem about failure.

  28. I feel your love for the film, David, so I will only say that I think you’re selling THE WILD BUNCH a little short. But it really isn’t a contest, is it?

  29. Oh no, I could go on and on about The Wild Bunch just as much as Pat Garrett. I do think it is the better film, but Pat Garrett is my favorite. While all of Peckinpah’s films share similar themes, each one is unique in how it approaches those themes.

  30. I was shocked to see what Peckinpah films Roger Ebert liked. You should read some of his old reviews.

  31. I’ve always loved that Ebert was a champion of Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia from the very beginning.

    The big reason that Pat Garrett is so different from the rest of Peckinpah’s work is that it comes from the pen of Rudy Wurlitzer, who is a true original. I’ve read 3 different drafts of Wurlitzer’s Pat Garrett screenplay, each one strikingly different from the other, all of them brilliant and unique, none of them just a thematic retread of The Wild Bunch (I don’t think Wurlitzer would even be capable of writing something like that). And hey, just by coincidence, this came up in my facebook feed today: http://www.vice.com/read/the-inteior-frontier-0000581-v22n2

  32. Also, for those interested in Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, I recommend tracking down Charles Neider’s amazing 50s Western The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones. I was able to snatch up a copy about 12 years ago for cheap, but it’s gotten pretty expensive in recent years. It’s a brilliantly gritty and violent fictionalization of Billy the Kid. Peckinpah wrote an adaptation of the book but was fired off the project by the director. His script was rewritten entirely outside of one scene and then turned into One-Eyed Jacks. The director that fired Peckinpah was Stanley Kubrick (who was subsequently fired by Marlon Brando). I have a copy of Peckinpah’s screenplay (and the rewrite) if anyone wants it. It’s pretty damn good. Later, when reworking Wurlitzer’s Pat Garrett screenplay, he incorporated some of the narrative devices (and even lines of dialogue) from his Hendry Jones adaptation (Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid is actually a closer adaptation of the Neider novel than One-Eyed Jacks, but don’t worry, Peckinpah and Neider were friends and had a strong respect for each other’s work).

    Speaking of unofficial adaptations, Wurlitzer would go on to write a script about a mountain man called Zebulon that had a lot of thematic similarities to Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid. It would later be stolen, gutted and cannibalized by Jim Jarmusch for Dead Man. If anyone wants to read the Zebulon screenplay to see how much Jarmusch stole from it, I have a copy of that screenplay too.

  33. I agree with SurfiNerds placement of THE GETAWAY on his Peckinpah listing. I once thought it was pretty good, and admittedly it played an important part in my teens in introducing me to Peckinpah and 70’s crime films, but I don’t think it holds up all that well now. It feels like a studio product of its time, and doesn’t really hint at the poetry or transcendent style of his westerns. (I am very fond of the 1994 remake, let it be said.)

  34. THE GETAWAYS was a studio movie, it was never a pet project of Peckinpah but that does not detract that it has qualities. It´s a very cold movie, but I like it a lot. The amazing, long opening sequence with its escalating rhythmic editing, the nasty pulpy violence, the even nastier subplot with Lettieri´s character and plenty of slow mo shotgun shootings makes it memorable. I think the movie might leave a sour taste in your mouth in a lot of ways, but for me it´s that movie along with THE WILD BUNCH , those are the Peckinpah movies I have seen the most and are most fond of.

    Oh, I like BRING ME THE HEAD… as well.

  35. I must admit I don’t revisit CONVOY much, but apart from that I don’t think there’s a Peckinpah movie I don’t like. They all have that little bit extra that I love. Even THE OSTERMAN WEEKEND.

  36. David, the story about a mountain man called Zebulom must somehow have been the basis for the greatest TV series ever;HOW THE WEST WAS WON?

  37. I can’t say that I’ve ever seen the TV show, pegsman.

    As far as Peckinpah rankings, mine would go something like this:

    1. Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid
    2. The Wild Bunch
    3. Straw Dogs
    4. Ride the High Country
    5. Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia
    6. Cross of Iron
    7. The Ballad of Cable Hogue
    8. The Getaway
    9. Junior Bonner
    10. The Killer Elite
    11. Major Dundee
    12. Convoy
    13. The Osterman Weekend
    14. The Deadly Companions

    I haven’t seen his TV movie Noon Wine. I did watch his show The Westerner, which was pretty great.

  38. I would do some minor changes to that.

    1. The Wild Bunch
    2. Cross of Iron
    3. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid
    4. Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia
    5. Major Dundee
    6. Straw Dogs
    7. Junior Bonner
    9. Ride the High Country
    10. The Killer Elite
    11. The Getaway
    12. The Deadly Companions
    13. The Osterman Weekend
    14. Convoy

  39. I’ve never been able to get into Major Dundee. I’ve seen it in both versions numerous times and it’s always been a bore to me, despite enjoying the excellent cast and a few decent moments here and there. Surprised to see The Getaway rank below The Killer Elite, although I’ve never been a big fan of either.

  40. I’ve always liked MAJOR DUNDEE. It’s one of the few times I can stand watching Charlton Heston for two hours. As for THE GETAWAY and THE KILLER ELITE I just think I like what he has to say about friendship and loyalty more than his ideas about marriage.

  41. Having spent the last few weeks re-watching all of Peckinpahs movies, I feel I have to bump THE GETAWAY up to #7 on my list…

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