Movie Review: The Killer Elite (1975)

“The C.I.A. protects America … who protects America from the C.I.A.”

0 Stars
The Killer Elite (1975)

The Killer Elite (1975)


Director: Sam Peckinpah

Cast: James Caan, Robert Duvall, Arthur Hill

Synopsis: An agent working for a CIA affiliate is left apparently crippled when his partner betrays him.

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The Killer Elite marks the onset of Sam Peckinpah’s decline as a director.   The year before, he had seen Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia – now widely regarded as one of his best movies – fail to find favour with both critics and audiences.   This setback followed on from the box office failure of Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, another poorly received movie which has subsequently enjoyed a positive critical reappraisal.   These failures, combined with his own increasingly erratic behaviour, meant that by 1975 it was almost impossible for Peckinpah to find work in Hollywood, so when Mike Medavoy offered him the opportunity to work on an action thriller based on a reasonably successful novel by Robert Rostand, he jumped at the chance.   Sadly, despite a decent cast, The Killer Elite is a creatively threadbare effort that bears all the hallmarks of a movie made for the sole purpose of making money.

James Caan (Lady in a Cage, The Godfather) plays Mike Locken, an operative for an independent intelligence agency affiliated to the CIA.   You get the impression that he enjoys both his work and his relationship with his friend and partner, George Hansen (Robert Duvall – To Kill a Mockingbird, Bullitt).   But, judging by the way that Hansen clinically puts bullets in Locken’s knee and shoulder after first eliminating the East European defector (Helmut Dantine – Casablanca, Alexander the Great) they are supposed to be protecting, it’s safe to say that he isn’t enjoying  quite the same level of job satisfaction.   At least Hansen likes Locken well enough to refrain from killing him.   The Killer Elite is no more curious about the reasons behind a trusted agent like Hansen turning rogue than is his former partner.   It is an act of betrayal that is accepted without question or sense of disbelief on the part of all those involved, and is a reflection of the lack of depth or subtlety in Marc Norman and Stirling Silliphant’s screenplay.

Refusing to accept the news that his wounds will prevent him from finding work in his chosen profession (“You just retired, Mike,” Hansen informs him after shattering his knee cap), Locken embarks on a lengthy period of recuperation that is almost as arduous for the audience as it is for him.   Such is his determination to exact revenge on his former buddy, though, that he eventually attains a level of mobility that results in him being offered the opportunity to come out of retirement.   A Chinese activist earmarked for assassination by his government is passing through America on his way back to his homeland, and the CIA are keen to ensure that the assassination doesn’t take place during his brief stay in the States.  They’ve learned that the assassin hired to do the job is none other than Hansen, so who better to be tasked with ensuring the safety of the target than Hansen’s old buddy, Mike Locken?

Locken looks up a couple of retired colleagues to help him with his mission, and both abandon their new lives in favour of a return to the old with barely a pause to consider the implications.   Miller (Bo Hopkins – The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing, Midnight Express) is an expert marksman, and Mac (Burt Young – Rocky, Chinatown – who makes the movie his own)  a wheelman who is the only character with enough perception to understand the world in which they operate.   Mac knows that he and Locken and Miller are nothing more than pawns in games of treachery and deceit played by the likes of Cap Collis (Arthur Hill – The Andromeda Strain, Futureworld) and Lawrence Weyburn (Gig Young – That Touch of Mink, The Hindenburg), the slick executives for whom they work.

Most of Peckinpah’s movies were concerned to some degree with the concept of heroism as an outdated notion that the world in which its characters lived had lost interest, and while The Killer Elite also explores this theme, it has very little else in common with the director’s earlier work.   Almost nothing feels right about this picture.   It feels like a hastily assembled B- movie.   Caan is too subdued and hesitant, while Duvall’s character is so poorly defined that he can do nothing with it.   The dialogue is often clumsy and unconvincing, and the action sequences uninspired.   The final confrontation between Locken and his crew and a bunch of Ninja assassins not only reeks of commercial opportunism (the world was in the grip of a short-lived Kung-fu craze at the time), but is astonishingly shoddy for a movie produced by a major studio and filmmaker, although the location – a graveyard for naval ships – is at least out of the ordinary.

Peckinpah is proof that the light that burns brightest also fades the quickest.   His would briefly flare once more with Cross of Iron in 1977, but The Killer Elite served notice of the swift decline that lie ahead for him, even if, in the case of this sorry effort, the poor quality of the material is equally to blame.

(Reviewed 8th November 2016)





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