Color, 1975, 123 mins. 26 secs.
Directed by Sam Peckinpah
James Caan, Robert Duvall, Arthur Hill, Bo Hopkins, Mako, Burt Young, Gig Young, Tom Clancy, Tiana
Scorpion Releasing, Twilight Time (Blu-ray) (US RA HD), MGM (DVD) (US R1 NTSC), Wild Side (Blu-ray) (France RB HD) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9)
After a remarkable career resurgence that began in 1969 with The Wild Bunch and continued through four more essential films over the next three years, writer-director Sam Peckinpah found himself on the outs with the mutating studio system thanks to a pair of widely misunderstood and seemingly jinxed films, Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, both idiosyncratic works now also regarded as classics. With his self-destructive indulgences becoming a liability by this point, Peckinpah took on what amounted to a work for hire project, The Killer Elite, with a screenplay by Marc Norman and Sterling Silliphant he was forbidden from altering. The end result is a peculiar mash up of Three Days of the Condor and Enter the Dragon with two of the biggest stars of the era, James Caan and Robert Duvall, perversely kept separated for most of the running time. The film's turbulent production resulted in a film that became a modest box office success but has divided viewers ever since, often regarded as minor Peckinpah but building up a bit of a cult reputation for its bizarre fusion of genre elements.
A shadowy government department known as ComTeg, dedicating to eliminating those who pose a threat to national security, employs well-honed assassins to carry out its orders. Two of these are Mike Locken (Caan) and George Hansen (Duvall), who not only carry out assignments together but are also best friends after hours. However, a demolition job and the transport of an important defector goes south when George turns traitor and, in a twisted act of mercy, forces Mike into retirement by shooting out his elbow and kneecap. After months of prolonged physical rehabilitation, Mike tries to get back in the game and eventually gets his shot protecting an important overseas politician, Yuen Chung (Mako), who's been targeted by a squad of ninja assassins in league with George. Recruiting two old colleagues, sharp shooter Jerome (Hopkins) and driver Mac (Young), Mike tries to pull off a deadly job that ultimately leads to a covert war across San Francisco.
Feeling like a men's adventure paperback on a cocaine bender, The Killer Elite retains that beloved gritty crime film veneer common to so many '70s films while throwing in a number of off-center narrative choices like lingering on Caan's PT ritual (including having him using a cane for half the film) and indulging in a number of martial arts scenes that feel about as organic as the ones in the same year's The Man with the Golden Gun. That patchwork approach is also what helps it stick in the memory though, and it's rarely dull with Caan sharing some nice chemistry with Duvall (at least at the beginning) as well as Young and Hopkins later on. One of the best aspects of the film is the propulsive score by regular Peckinpah composer Jerry Fielding (who also died far too early), another high point in a career studded with masterpieces. Of course, the film is also worth seeing for its crazy gallery of actors including Arthur Hill and Gig Young as a couple of ambiguous higher ups in the organization as well as the screen debut of Silliphant's wife, Tiana Alexandra (credited here as just Tiana), whose life story is an entire saga unto itself.
Regularly available on home video in all major formats since the first Key Video VHS back in 1984, The Killer Elite hit DVD in 1999 from MGM with a variety of reissues since then including a 2012 one with a "Passion & Poetry: Sam's Killer Elite" featurette (27m45s) by Mike Siegel (part of an ongoing series of looks at the director's films) featuring archival audio recollections from Peckinpah along with video interviews featuring Bo Hopkins, Kris Kristofferson, Katy Haber, and Isela Vega. The first Blu-ray edition popped up in 2013 from French label Wild Side, featuring the standard theatrical version as well as (for some reason) the truncated French cut running seven minutes shorter. In 2014, Twilight Time bowed the film on U.S. Blu-ray as a limited edition with extras including an isolated score track, a very informative audio commentary (with Peckinpah scholars Paul Seydor and Garner Simmons moderated by the now sadly departed Nick Redman), the "Passion & Poetry: Sam's Killer Elite" featurette, a promotional gallery, the trailer, and a TV spot. However, the big draw here for many Peckinpah acolytes is his excellent 1966 TV production, Noon Wine (51m18s), with Olivia de Havilland and Jason Robards as a pair of farmers who take on a new handyman (Per Oscarsson) with a dark secret in his past. Extremely difficult to see before this, the film was revived with the rediscovery of a 1-inch videotape copy and also gets outfitted with a commentary by the same trio here.
In 2021, Scorpion Releasing brought Peckinpah's film back in circulation on Blu-ray (available from Ronin Flix and Diabolik) with a fresh special edition featuring what's promoted as a new 2020 restoration. The transfer adds some additional image info on the sides and features very similar color timing compared to the older release, with more vibrant blues and deeper blacks marking the only big variation. The biggest difference here is the image detail with much more finely rendered film grain and textures like hair and clothing looking much more tactile in motion than before. The DTS-HD MA English 2.0 mono track is in perfect shape as always and comes with optional English SDH subtitles. The previous Seydor-Simmons-Redman commentary is ported over here plus 1m38s of TV spots, 2m55s of radio spots, the theatrical trailer (which is 4x3 SD as always and could really use a fresh scan by this point), and bonus trailers for Rollerball, Trackdown, A Small Town in Texas, Who'll Stop the Rain, The Mechanic, Killer Force, and The Dogs of War. Most importantly, you also get two new video featurettes starting off with Bo Hopkins (10m15s) who talks a lot about his own contributions to the action scenes (despite knowing nothing about "that kung fu"), his proposed alternate fate for his character, and a funny concluding aside about Johnny Carson. Then production assistant Katy Haber appears for an interview (7m53s) about her work on this film among the eight she did with Peckinpah, confirming that the director did intend to approach it as a satire and discussing the relatively smooth location shooting including the big mothball fleet finale.
Scorpion Releasing (Blu-ray)
Twilight Time (Blu-ray)
Reviewed on May 6, 2021.