By: Anthony Francis
Sam Peckinpah directed some truly classic films and is considered one of the greatest and most unique filmmakers who ever stepped behind a camera. His voice and his vision were completely unique and his imprint on film history is undeniable.
Whether his work spoke of loyalty and camaraderie, family and the influence of a father, or men being left behind by the changing times, Peckinpah’s films had a pure and profound soul.
As the filmmaker continued to change the cinema landscape with his inventive director’s eye, Peckinpah became known for his masterful vision regarding scenes of action and, especially, the way violence was portrayed on screen.
Unfairly labeled “Bloody Sam”, it was the filmmaker’s desire to show violence for what it is, bloody and painful. Peckinpah stated that “people do bleed and get hurt… I show violence as a sad poetry.”
The director’s sequences of gunplay, and violence are meticulously crafted and executed with absolute precision. Sam Peckinpah was not an “action director” by definition. Most of his works were always something much deeper and more powerful.
During the last decade of his career, with his personal issues spinning out of control, he became an occasional director for hire. A couple of times, Peckinpah was presented lesser material but always seemed to make something better and more exciting out of it, like the true craftsman he was.
With more than a few masterpieces amongst his filmography, sometimes his great work on films that were never as popular as they should have been gets ignored.
In 1975, Peckinpah directed “The Killer Elite”, a slick and entertaining Action Thriller that should have found a bigger audience and one that deserves more respect.
An excellent James Caan stars as Mike Locken, a covert CIA agent/mercenary whose best friend and partner George Hansen (a menacing Robert Duvall) has turned on him. After being shot by Hansen and forced to retire from “The Company”, Lockenputs himself back into the “game” when his bosses (Gig Young and Arthur Hill) take on a job to protect a Japanese political agent, (the wonderful Mako) from hired assassins out to silence him.
Locken discovers that one of the men leading the hit squad is his old buddy, George Hansen. He then assembles his team, the scarily calm professional killer Jerome (played stone cool by Peckinpah mainstay Bo Hopkins) and Mac, the professional driver, perfectly played by the great Burt Young.
With the team assembled and their “package” in their care, they navigate the streets and naval yards of San Francisco trying to keep everyone alive.
Peckinpah had Sterling Silliphant rewrite Marc Norman’s screenplay to help him punch it up. James Caan and Robert Duvall were attatched from the beginning and were looking forward to being in a Sam Peckinpah film.
The studio wanted to replace the director before shooting began due to their worries about his reputation and the already escalating problems. Caan and Duvall threatened to walk unless they kept Sam as director. Peckinpah stayed on and the shoot was filled with problems including Caan’s hatred for Tiana, the actress who played Mako’s daughter. She was Silliphant’sgirlfriend, and she treated the cast and crew like peasants. Caanstepped in and declared he would “throw her into the water” if she did not change.
This and major studio interference kept the set uneasy. The buzz was bad and once it was released, the critics were unkind, and the film was not the big hit everyone had hoped.
While many consider this a Peckinpah failure, I always felt it to be a quite entertaining, well-acted, and superbly executed Action film.
The opening sequence, where Locken and Hansen do their final job together (getting a German exile to safety while blowing up a building for cover) is exciting and masterfully edited, as are the opening credits that preceded it. Jerry Fielding’s expert theme sets up this tale of betrayal and personal vengeance with the same brilliance of his work for the main credits of “The Wild Bunch”.
Many sequences in this film stand out. One if the best is where Hansen betrays his friend not too long after the opening. It is executed brilliantly by the director and his two main actors. With little dialogue, crafty edits, and eerily subtle music from composer Fielding that plays like a warning of impending doom, the scene becomes a classic Peckinpah moment burning with a wire-tight tension.
The film is peppered with great action scenes, and all are well done, each one making great use of the filmmaker’s visual stylings.
The finale is an amazing action sequence that is at once silly and masterful. Caan and what is left of his crew are in the abandoned naval yards in San Francisco. Out in the open, they are attacked by ninja. The scene works but is quite bizarre. You haven’t lived until you witness Burt Young get the best of professional ninja assassains! There is Karate, ninja swords, and lots of shooting. It ALL works thanks to the mastery of Sam Peckinpah and his editor Tony de Zarraga (with uncredited work from Monte Hellman). It is an unforgettable Peckinpah moment.
I have always found love for “The Killer Elite” despite its few imperfections. In a filmography of many great pieces, Sam Peckinpah delivered one of his most exciting films that should have been guaranteed box office gold.
While uneven at times and more of a straightforward thriller with little substance beyond its main plot (although it does touch on the classic Peckinpah theme of honor and camaraderie), this is a film that delivers on many levels. Great performances from Caan, Duvall, Mako, Hopkins (who plays a killer but is almost sweet and endearing), Burt Young, Arthur Hill and Gig Young give this film some major acting weight.
Peckinpah’s mastery of editing and casting and choosing the right score makes this film sizzle.
“The Killer Elite” is a film that gets better with age. This is Sam Peckinpah having a bit of fun and expertly delivering a Hollywood Action Thriller with class and a bit of artistry.
The film stands one of the most exciting films of the Seventies. It is tough, entertaining, and Peckinpah to its very core.