RETRO ACTIVE: The Killer Elite (1975)

RETRO ACTIVE: The Killer Elite (1975)

by Nick Schager

The Killer Elite (1975)

What's new is always old, and in this recurring column, Nick will be taking a look at the classic genre movies that have influenced today's new releases. In honor of the Jason Statham-headlined film of the same name, this week it's Sam Peckinpah's 1975 The Killer Elite.

Following the brutally honest and financially unprofitable Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, legendary tough-guy director Sam Peckinpah turned to The Killer Elite as a means of reestablishing his box-office clout, an attempt that?as a result of his disdain for studio interference and mounting substance abuse issues?was more or less doomed from the outset. Pressured to toe the line by United Artists (the studio that had taken a bath on Alfredo Garcia), Peckinpah rebelled through sheer, unadulterated disinterest, tackling his adaptation of Robert Rostand's novel "Monkey in the Middle" with a who-cares attitude that permeates not only his stewardship but also his cast's performances. It's a movie that exudes an air of such nonchalance toward generating any tension, momentum, or nuance that it's amazing the film even opened to strong theatrical business in late 1975 before, more predictably, sinking like a stone. In virtually every respect, The Killer Elite doesn't work the way a prototypical actioner should, sabotaging its own thrills and character development with almost pathological doggedness. And yet primarily because of its myriad flaws, it's a surprisingly fascinating entry in the Peckinpah oeuvre, as it represents?in a manner similar to the grungy, gnarly, dryly sardonic Alfredo Garcia?a piercing reflection of its maker's devolution into devil-may-care apathy.

The Killer Elite (1975)

The Killer Elite's plot is a straightforward tale of betrayal and payback amongst private-contractor assassins, all spurred by George Hansen (Robert Duvall) turning on pal and partner Mike Locken (James Caan) by crippling him?when he comes out of the shower at their current mission's safe house?with a bullet in the elbow and kneecap. Before that initial treachery has occurred, however, Peckinpah has undercut any sense of seriousness. Despite opening with a sequence of hands drilling holes, laying wire, and setting up dynamite that implies an attentiveness to methodical workmanship, the director spends the early-going having Duvall and Caan ad-lib with deliberate absurdity. An extended car ride in which George teases Mike about the latter's one-night stand having a venereal disease is a model of flippancy, with the two actors laughing, stammering and bullshitting with half-assed off-the-cuffness. Consequently, when George stabs Mike in the back, the atmosphere of indifference is already so thick that there's no impact. And Peckinpah's unnecessarily in-depth depiction of the surgical efforts to save Mike?whose life perplexingly hangs in the balance from these non-lethal injuries?is similarly slipshod, highlighted by Caan responding to a nurse trying to feed him ham with a sing-songy "No, no, no" that makes the actor appear downright drunk.

The Killer Elite (1975) Rumors of rampant on-set cocaine abuse by both Caan and Peckinpah gain traction from the actor's not-really-there turn, as well as Peckinpah's generally perfunctory framing and, on at least two occasions, stunningly jagged editing. Nothing about The Killer Elite feels the least bit urgent because its maker seems asleep at the wheel, though not quite so somnambulistic that he can't rehash his usual resentment of authority. In this instance, those repugnant forces are Mike's employers ComTeg, a double-dealing outfit in league with the CIA that's slammed as part of America's larger corporate/government "power systems," a familiar Peckinpah argument made here by that, ahem, paragon of profound political philosophy, Burt Young. Alfredo Garcia's Gig Young again represents that evil as one of Mike's nefarious employers, but the sentiment comes across as more dutiful than passionate, and turns up after so much nonsense that it's difficult to believe Peckinpah has any real desire to transform this for-hire job into a heartfelt statement about combating an establishment that, as illustrated by Mike's boss Cap (Arthur Hill), is defined by self-interested duplicity and amorality.

The Killer Elite (1975)

Whereas the director's prior efforts were fixated on the nature of masculinity, The Killer Elite is starkly unconcerned with Mike and George's manliness, except insofar as it ridicules its story's action-movie conventions and ideas about heroism. Some of that is unintentional, as when Mike heals his broken, limping body by training at the cheesy wood-paneled home of his nurse, stumbling while he runs up stairs that even a mother carrying a baby can navigate (oh, the agony of rehab!), and loosening up his braced elbow by practicing martial arts in the street with an aged mentor. The film's infatuation with kung fu is half-hearted and cheapened by of-the-era terms like "Orientals" and "chop suey." It's Peckinpah's overt thumbing his nose at his genre material, however, that's ultimately most jarring. During the climactic sword-fighting showdown between a killer and the noble Chinese politician Mike's been hired to protect from George, Mike provides commentary?including mocking the baddie's ninja outfit as a "goofy looking thing"?that allows Peckinpah to let the audience know that he understands he's making second-rate rubbish. The message is hard to dispute, and by insisting on its own irrelevance, The Killer Elite winds up functioning as a strangely personal work, one that, in its own warped and unsatisfying way, provides a window into the head and heart of its notoriously self-destructive maker.

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Posted by ahillis at September 20, 2011 2:45 PM

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