The Killer Elite (1975)
Espionage and San Francisco replace hardened outlaws and Mexico for this Sam Peckinpah effort that once again sees the director assemble a first rate cast for more slow motion blood letting. The script from Sterling Silliphant and Marc Norman will involve shifty double crosses and Ninja like warriors before Cannon Films made the Ninja a household word at the dawn of the next decade. Writer Silliphant was on a roll following 1967’s In the Heat of the Night. He’d turn out Murphy’s War, The New Centurions, a Shaft sequel, Telefon, The Enforcer, and a trio of big screen disasters. The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno and yes, even The Swarm in the 1970’s.
Robert Duvall and James Caan are partners who work for the “agency”. Not quite the CIA or the FBI but the pair are lethal when called upon by private contractors. At the outset the pair are taking a shift in a safe house guarding a potential high risk witness who has been marked for death. Turns out Duvall has been bought off and while partner Caan is out of the room he assassinates his target. Shortly thereafter he “retires” his partner by putting one bullet in Caan’s elbow and another in his kneecap. He couldn’t bring himself to kill Caan before he goes underground and of course will live to regret it.
Caan’s handlers Gig Young and Arthur Hill do indeed put him on permanent leave but Caan persists through depression and physiotherapy along with martial arts training to turn his body back into a weapon and with the use of a cane does just that. He wants back in to the field on active duty and when Mako arrives on U.S. soil amidst assassination attempts on his life, Gig and Arthur come calling with the perfect bait. Duvall is suspected to be behind the attempt made on Mako and with Caan looking for revenge and they themselves wanting Duvall out of the way, Caan is the logical choice to pull the trigger. He’s motivated by revenge as opposed to protecting Mako at all costs.
Time for Caan to bring in Peckinpah regular, Bo Hopkins, an actor I’m always happy to see and Burt Young as well who even here seems to be practicing for his career role of Paulie in the Rocky saga. He’d even return for another Peckinpah outing appropriately as Pig Pen in the 1978 misfire Convoy.
With Caan and his team on the job the battle has been set. It’s Caan vs. Duvall.
Peckinpah styled shootouts are soon to follow. First off the trio will attempt to move Mako and his staff including his Ninja trained daughter, Tiana, to a safe zone but there’s a turncoat from above who us feeding Duvall the location of his prey. I don’t think there’s anymore need for plot points here. It’s a Peckinpah film so that alone should put this film on your radar if you haven’t seen it already. While it may not be The Getaway, it’s still entertaining and with the cast he’s recruited, there’s no reason not to give this one a look.
Caan and Duvall were no strangers to each other by this time having appeared in The Godfather as well as a pair of late 60’s films, The Rain People and Countdown. This would prove to be the only Peckinpah film of either’s career. The charismatic good old boy, Bo Hopkins, had memorably appeared in the The Wild Bunch’s opening shootout as well as Sam’s 1972 action flick, The Getaway. This was Gig Young’s second go around under Sam’s direction having appeared previously in Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia.
The musical score is from Jerry Fielding who had worked with Sam four times previously beginning with the amazing score for The Wild Bunch. He would also work with Sam on Straw Dogs, Junior Bonner and Alfredo Garcia. Turning up in a small role is an aging Victor Sen Yung in one of his final screen appearances. Did you spot him? Do you know who he is? For me he’ll always be Charlie Chan’s #2 son, Jimmy. For others, perhaps Hop Sing. Ruler of The Ponderosa’s kitchen.
Ask me to pick one Sam movie to take with me to a deserted island, it’s a no brainer. The Wild Bunch. Still if I had my way I’d take all his movies with me for I find something in each of his films to enjoy. Here it’s the action sequences and a Jimmy Caan in his prime who could really command the screen following the Godfather for the balance of the decade.
Then there’s the character actors that Sam continued to put in the background. Bo Hopkins being the best example here and it’s always a privilege to see Mako on screen. Sam may have been the first director I knew by name and that’s thanks to one of those big coffee table books I’d take out at the public library on westerns that featured plenty of glossy pics of the Bunch and Major Dundee. Films I just had to see and eventually would on late night TV followed by the VHS tape numerous times. I still recall being quite excited as a young teen when The Osterman Weekend was released to theaters. Sadly that proved to be his last film as Sam’s demons finally caught up with him in 1984 when he passed away at the age of 59.
The Killer Elite is out on DVD or if you can find a copy and are willing to shell out the cash, you can pick it up on blu ray thanks to Twilight Time. As an added bonus on the blu ray, Sam’s acclaimed 1966 Noon Wine TV show is included. This TV special also features a list of Sam regulars including Jason Robards, Ben Johnson and L.Q. Jones.
Next time someone asks you if you’ve seen The Killer Elite, make sure they’re talking about Sam’s worthy 70’s actioner and not the so-so film of the same title featuring Statham, DeNiro and Owen.