It’s tough to find defenders of The Killer Elite. Watching the film without any knowledge of the chaotic production or of director Sam Peckinpah’s personal, financial and artistic woes at the time probably makes for a bland and unexciting viewing experience; sadly, a little background on Peckinpah effectively makes it even worse, as it’s hard to watch The Killer Elite without noticing that the gleefully indulgent heart characteristic of his best films seems to have vanished.
The set-up ain’t bad, although that hardly ever matters in the hands of a capable director. James Caan and Robert Duvall star as CIA-contracted assassins and friends who have worked together for years. Duvall’s George betrays Caan’s Mike, shooting him in the elbow and knee and leaving him badly crippled. The rest of the film follows Mike as he recuperates, retakes his post at the shady government operations agency, and ultimately seeks revenge on his old pal George.
There are plenty of rumors associated with The Killer Elite that may or may not be true. First is that Peckinpah took the project specifically as an attempt to recreate the financial success he had with the Steve McQueen-starrer The Getaway, which marked the last financially successful movie Peckinpah would direct. Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia was both more in line with Peckinpah’s Western sensibilities and more of a box office flop, and so it is admittedly easy in that regard to draw parallels between The Getaway and The Killer Elite. The fact that the project may have been more associated with money than with any real passion pretty much sets the thing up for failure out of the gate.
Another rumor is that Peckinpah’s drug and alcohol use (or abuse) increased during production of The Killer Elite, and that for long stretches of filming Peckinpah was completely unavailable. Some go so far as to say it was Caan and his cohorts who introduced Peckinpah to cocaine.
These are very likely truths, but it’s a moot point; it’s painfully obvious in The Killer Elite that Peckinpah isn’t there, whether it was physically or just artistically, certainly not the force of presence he brought to his best films The Wild Bunch and Straw Dogs. The sheer amount of footage that seems like stock footage – long landscapes of airports and San Francisco shorelines and moored boats and whatever else – suggests that the second unit filmed much of what would eventually make the final cut. And that cut is jarring at times with regards to editing; Peckinpah’s trademark fast-to-slow-motion jump cut is present here, but it’s nowhere near as effective as it was when he introduced it in The Wild Bunch.
The performances are fine for the most part, but everyone just feels a bit wasted (not like wasted wasted, not like Peckinpah wasted, but just underused). Duvall is his usual spellbinding self but only has three or four solid scenes. Caan dominates the film – but do we really want to spend the majority of the time watching him feel better about his bum knee? I implore you: what about kicking ass? The image of James Caan kicking ass in a bulky arm and leg brace should have been so much cooler – hell, it’s so unlike anything else in action movies these days, it should have been damn-near iconic. Instead it’s borderline ridiculous because it’s an afterthought rather than a focal point. The supporting cast, too, is introduced clunkily, especially the client Yuen Chung (played by Mako who, speaking of Steve McQueen, played opposite McQ in The Sand Pebbles) and the guys who come out of the woodwork to randomly support Mike’s dangerous vendetta at the drop of a hat.
Overall, The Killer Elite is a meandering and uncertain outing from the great Sam Peckinpah. Though he directed many films that would be considered “flops” financially, this is one of the first instances in which all the people who decided not to pay money to see it might actually have been right.