Review: The Killer Elite

[Originally published in Movietone News 50, June 1976]

Sam Peckinpah’s newest film opens with a whirling drill bit boring through a wall. But, whether by design or accident, The Killer Elite is not the study of espionage screwings and counter-screwings it might have been. In fact, for all its action, it is essentially a talk film. Everybody talks at for-hire protection agent Mike Locken, though he’s almost never interested. His killer-corporation boss, visiting him in the hospital after Locken has been wounded, reflects on the irony of his own situation: “My father was a minister. That’s what he wanted me to be.” To this embarrassingly inappropriate reverie Locken retorts, “Who the hell cares?” winning the applause of the viewer impatient with Strange Interludes. “Heroism is Out,” another character reminds him; but Locken curiously doesn’t sense the sterility in a new age when murder is no longer the passionate response of an individual but the paid service of a corporation.

The merging of corporate conformity with criminal conspiracy, more ably handled in Pakula’s The Parallax View, is here a simplistic tactic for getting all the contemporary liberal’s bugaboos into one hated office building; and the dialogue continues to slam the message home. Locken’s driver-mechanic Mac delivers the superfluously definitive version of the anti–Power Systems speech that weighs down nearly every intrigue film of the past decade: “You’re so busy doing their dirty work, you can’t tell who the bad guys really are.” The tendentiousness begins to get to Locken. When an attractive teenager informs him she’s a virgin, his initial “That’s nice” is followed quickly by a resentful “I don’t give a shit.” But he can’t hide his Romantic naïveté. Only he is surprised when it turns out both he and his ex-buddy–now-foe (Robert Duvall) are being run by the same boss, a company vice-president who’s set up a few misfits to be wiped out in accordance with a complicated foreign betrayal he’s working on the side. Found out, and held at gunpoint by an angry Locken at the film’s climax, he’s blasé: “Sides, sides….” Even the Oriental client Locken is supposed to protect is cavalier in the face of death, plunging with Buddhist ethic into swordplay with one of his would-be assassins. Locken, who has both motive and opportunity to gun down the adversary, and has already shot down several others to protect his client, now gives way and allows the swordfight. When it’s over, he walks out on the offer of a high-up job and sails away to nothing-in-particular-but-it’s-got-to-be-better-than-this. No death under the wheels of progress, no being passed up by history, no rendezvous with destiny, no moral victory: this Peckinpah character merely survives—and the whole process is monumentally boring.

For the film is only justified if we are interested in Mike Locken, and most of the time we aren’t. The fault is due partly to the writing, so concerned with machination that it never gets close to the people caught in the machine. But there is, beyond this, a lack of intensity and of enthusiasm about the whole production. The entire film takes place on one thin plane of involvement. Though there is at least as much action and violence as in most Peckinpah films, the only tooth-grittingly affecting moment is a short scene with Locken’s surgeon removing the stitches from his bullet wounds. Here, through closeup and montage, Peckinpah establishes an intimacy which, unfortunately, is lost soon after Locken’s Wings of Eagles recovery of his agility, and which does not return for the rest of the film. Philip Lathrop keeps his camera at disinterested middle and long distances most of the time. Overuse of the intercutting of two parallel violent actions (guy gets shot–guy gets punched–first guy falls–second guy falls–first guy hits water–second guy hits deck of boat) becomes quickly pedestrian and serves not to tauten but only to compromise the intensity of both actions: Peckinpah’s customary dance-of-death slowmotion, too, is simply slow, never emphatic or personal the way it is in, say, The Wild Bunch. Generally, the movie has the rough-edged look of a run-through: except for Bo Hopkins’s trigger-fast semi-psychotic, the acting is often inappropriate and always shallow, as if the players were unfamiliar with lines, scene, context, motivation. Sure, these are supposed to be emotionless people—but The Killer Elite didn’t have to be an emotionless film. The absence of directorial attitude and specific point of view doesn’t always make a film fail; but when as personal a director as Peckinpah is as unemphatic about his presence as he is here, one wonders why. If Mike Locken’s motivation, intentionally or not, remains a mystery throughout, it is nothing compared with the enigma of Sam Peckinpah’s motivation in making this film. Of course, even Homer nods. One hopes that Tonino Valerii was just a bit premature when, in My Name Is Nobody, he put Peckinpah under a tombstone.

© 1976 Robert C. Cumbow

THE KILLER ELITE
Direction: Sam Peckinpah. Screenplay: Marc Norman and Stirling Silliphant, after the novel by Robert Rostand. Cinematography: Philip Lathrop. Editing: Garth Craven, Tony de Zarraga, Monte Hellman. Music: Jerry Fielding.
The players: James Caan, Robert Duvall, Bo Hopkins, Burt Young, Arthur Hill, Gig Young, Mako, Tiana, Tom Clancy, Helmut Dantine.