The Killer Elite (1975)

Rating: **
Review Date: 5/23/20
Director: Sam Peckinpah
Cast: James Caan, Robert Duvall, Burt Young, Bo Hopkins, Mako, Tiana Alexandra

Mike Locken (James Caan) and George Hansen (Robert Duvall) work for an independent intelligence agency that handles the CIA's dirty work. Hansen betrays Locken and leaves him crippled, and the entire first half of the film revolves around Locken's rehabilitation and the humiliation of his handicaps. He learns some new martial arts moves that make use of his cane, which comes in handy when his old boss comes back to him and offers him a chance to get revenge. His mission is to protect a Japanese activist (Mako) long enough to get him out of the country, because it would be a political nightmare if he were to die on American soil. At the same time, Hansen has been hired to kill Mako before he can leave the country, which pits the two former friends against each other. Locken calls on two of his buddies, a retired driver (Burt Young) and a psychotic gunman (Bo Hopkins), to help, and the game is on. The climax takes place on the deck of a decommissioned battleship, as a group of ninja attack Locken's team.

The film is an uneven mess, and while the action was inspired by Bruce Lee and kung fu cinema, the execution is sorely lacking. The characters' general disregard for Asian culture and the martial arts is also distasteful, even though Locken himself is a practitioner. While the characters are uninteresting and unlikable, the acting is quite good and in general it's a well-made film. Unfortunately, it's also overly long and boring, and lacks a cohesive sense of direction.

More interesting than the film itself is the drama that went on behind it. While it's regarded as one of Sam Peckinpah's lesser films, he had a bad reputation in Hollywood and had trouble finding work at the time, so he was lucky to land the job. He was also struggling with drug and alcohol addiction, and this was his chance to show the suits that he could still make a commercially viable film. Stirling Silliphant only agreed to write the screenplay if his nineteen year-old girlfriend Tiana could star in the film. She was reportedly difficult to work with, which seems surprising since she's only in a handful of scenes and has very little dialog. Her character also seems completely superfluous to the plot and feels like it was tacked on just for her. Also, her name in the opening credits is noticeably smaller than everyone else's, which seems like an intentional slight. Overall, it's not a great piece of 70's action cinema, but the cast is wonderful and the performances are solid. It's just a shame that it's not more entertaining.