Thursday, 19 November 2015

No. 102. Sam Peckinpah - THE KILLER ELITE (1975)


Arguably, BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA signalled the start of the downward trajectory of Sam Peckinpah’s career. His next film THE KILLER ELITE, based on the novel ‘Monkey in the Middle’ seemed a promising return, involving assassination, ninja martial arts, espionage and the re-teaming of Robert Duvall and James Caan a few years after THE GODFATHER made their names, but it never really delivers on that promising material..

Caan and Duvall have an easy time of it playing on their chemistry, Caan’s macho ladies-man swagger and Duvall’s blue-collar craftiness. They are agents of Comteg, a shadowy CIA-employed organisation involved in the murky world of erasing defectors and those smuggling state secrets to other governments. The opening features a transcript extract of an interview conducted with an evasive senior operative denying their existence. Waggishly, the film offers a disclaimer that for the real CIA to use such tactics “…is, of course, preposterous”. Forty years on, in the era of global Wikileaks document leakage and government-sanctioned surveillance ‘for our security’, this kind of spy-craft suddenly seems a lot less far-fetched.

The plot of THE KILLER ELITE hinges on more personal vendettas though. George (Duvall) critically wounds his partner Mike (Caan) in the elbow and leg during a mission for some inexplicable reason and absconds, leaving him to rehabilitate himself gradually with the aid of a cane and newly-learned martial arts skills. Mike is eager to prove ready for active duty again, driven by a need for revenge. Despite his eastern defence technique with the cane, his superior Weybourne and uber-boss Collis want him to take a desk job.  They are forced to re-hire Mike though when a Japanese politician, Chung (esteemed actor Mako), needs protection and will be the intended target of an international team of ninja assassins plus an American group led by the re-surfaced George.
Caan tools up by recruiting his car-dealer friend Mac (Burt Young, literally spinning his wheels a year before playing the famously dead-beat Pauly in the ROCKY films) and firearms expert Miller (Peckinpah regular Bo Hopkins). They outwit a plastique bomb stuck to their car with the aid of a none-too-bright traffic cop and then do the best they can to shield their valuable ‘package’ whilst he is in America before Mike kills George and shoots Corliss who had secretly been playing both ends by employing the two of them…

THE KILLER ELITE could have been a sure-fire hit but it keeps missing its mark, courtesy of bad choices by Peckinpah throughout. It’s a shame that Weybourne didn’t take his own advice and be pensioned off as once again the director loyally cast his friend Gig Young in the part. The actor’s painfully-obvious terminal alcoholism renders his delivery so laid-back as to be narcoleptic.  This drags the pace of the film which is already mournfully slow at times for an action thriller.

Young’s behaviour could be seen as a barometer for his director who by now was also starting to sleep-walk through his films, rendering action sequences in a by-the-numbers slow motion without any of his former style. Peckinpah’s earlier films were stunningly edited under his watchful supervision; the gun-play in THE WILD BUNCH and the brilliantly cut twenty-minute siege climax of STRAW DOGS were rightfully praised for exciting, kinetic cutting. Here he either settles for formulaic shoot-outs, or more frustratingly tries to impose fast cuts onto martial-arts fights whose choreography needs to be allowed to play out, not irritatingly cut away from so often. It’s as though he’s never seen a Hong Kong film or Robert Clouse’s ENTER THE DRAGON to see how a Westerner can get the most out of the form. Every time Caan gets stuck into an opponent, there is an immediate cut to someone else and then back later, breaking the energy flow and rendering the fights truncated and uninvolving.

Another flaw is that, whilst I’m not advocating slavish screen-writer formula adherence, Peckinpah breaks the valid rule of never taking the plot out of the hands of your protagonist. He stages a final all-too-brief battle between the main ninja assassin and…Chung - not Mike.  It not only renders Caan as the star superfluous, but in exposing Chung to mortal danger, defeats the whole point of why Mike’s team were assigned to him in the first place.

Since Chung finishes off his own problem by the end, it at least allows Caan and his team to walk away at the end - and THE KILLER ELITE fizzles out, an uncommitted ending to a less than committed action movie.

Sam Peckinpah had two more films in him, the belatedly-praised WWII saga CROSS OF IRON and the entertaining THE OSTERMAN WEEKEND (1983) before his body fatally succumbed to the years of substance abuse. His body of work, however, has enough quality films overall to outlive him and many others as an iconoclastic talent.

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