The Film: 4/5
It's amazing how your perception of a movie can be altered once you find out who served as its director. If a capable action director like John McTiernan (Die Hard) or F. Gary Gray (The Negotiator) had called the shots on the somewhat forgotten 1975 pulp yarn The Killer Elite it probably would have been hailed as a new classic of the genre and the people responsible for its making would be declared masters of widescreen cinematic excitement. But it was actually directed by the legendary Sam Peckinpah during a difficult time in both his life and career when the man who brought us The Wild Bunch and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid was slowly being consumed by addictions to alcohol and cocaine and burning nearly every one of his bridges in the film industry.
The Killer Elite, an adaptation of the Robert Rostand novel Monkey in the Middle scripted by Oscar winners Marc Norman (Shakespeare in Love) and Stirling Silliphant (In the Heat of the Night), was assigned to Peckinpah by trusted executives at United Artists, the same studio that had backed his rancorous and violent cult classic Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. The filmmaker had no personal investment in the material but both he and U.A. saw in the project the potential for another star-driven smash hit in the vein of his Steve McQueen-Ali MacGraw heist thriller The Getaway that could do much to repair his reputation in Hollywood and possibly fund some of Peckinpah's more eclectic features. According to multiple sources, the director loathed the script he had been given and encouraged his actors to improvise much of their own dialogue especially when it helped to undermine any attempts at seriousness. The result is one of the weirdest films Peckinpah ever made, but that doesn't mean he didn't slip some of his familiar thematic and visual flourishes to make The Killer Elite a worthwhile companion piece to the classics of his storied filmography.
James Caan stars as Mike Locken, a highly-trained operative for ComTeg, a private security company contracted by the CIA for the most difficult assignments. During his latest mission in San Francisco Locken is betrayed and shot twice by George Hansen (Robert Duvall), his best friend and fellow operative who has decided to go to the other side for bigger paydays. Locken is left barely able to walk on his own but after many weeks of rigorous physical rehabilitation and martial arts training he gains improved hand-to-hand combat skills that allow him to employ his walking cane as a weapon. Ready to get back into the field Locken is approached by ComTeg superior Cap Collis (Arthur Hill) for a new assignment that will have him providing protection for influential Asian politician Yuen Chung (Mako) until he can be spirited from the country by boat. When he discovers that Hansen will likely come gunning for Chung Locken turns to old compatriots Mac (Burt Young) and Jerome Miller (Bo Hopkins) for assistance in keeping Chung alive long enough to return to his home country. But all is not what it seems and Locken soon learns that he can't even trust his own employers. There are also ninjas.
Between the Vietnam War and Watergate Americans had little to no reason to trust their own government. That mistrust of authority and the redefinition of patriotism in the 1970's resulted in some of the decade's darkest and most memorable films. The Killer Elite doesn't quite belong in their ranks but on its own it rates highly as a disposable thriller adapted from the sort of dog-eared paperback source material you would read at a lightning pace while waiting for your connecting flight to Flagstaff. Watching it today is like staring into the eyes of a master of the silver screen as the light behind them goes dim. Peckinpah had become the studio system's own Deke Thornton as he chose the pursuit of money and stature over respectability. He had little chose in the matter as anyone intimately familiar with the man's relationships could tell you. When inspiration washed over him there was no one better at creating stories of men with their backs against the wall fighting for some modicum of pride and honor.
There isn't much to the story and Norman and Silliphant do what they can to keep things interesting and constantly on the move, but at least Peckinpah gets invested enough in the work to extract some fine performances from his cast and orchestrate a handful of effective action sequences that are deployed sparingly throughout. Caan underplays the character of Locken, keeping his emotions in check and letting his acidic quips and fancy fighting moves handle the bulk of his expression. Duvall is given less to do because after his initial betrayal of Locken his character disappears from the movie for about an hour and then resurfaces briefly like a ghost, but he handles the inferior material like a pro and his chemistry with Caan in the early scenes has been carried over from The Godfather without losing its potency. Burt Young and Bo Hopkins dig into their juicy sidekick parts and bring a lot of their own personalities to what little is provided for them on the page, and the same can be said for Arthur Hill and Gig Young on the agency side of the action. The stone-faced Young in particular is as quietly menacing as his cold-blooded killer in Alfredo Garcia. Mako is another standout as Chung, one of the few authentically honorable people in Locken's broken world, as is Kate Heflin (daughter of Van) as a nurse Locken befriends in the hospital and later starts a romantic relationship with.
The film's action highlights are limited to a gun battle in the heart of Chinatown and a spectacular finale that has heroes and villains fighting it out among the famous Mothball Fleet in San Francisco's Suisun Bay, but they are staged and executed like the best set-pieces Peckinpah ever brought to the screen (aided by some first-rate editing from a post-production team that included cult filmmaking great Monte Hellman). The climatic fight is a real winner as ninjas are thrown into the fray and there's plenty of slow-motion brawling and dying.
Twilight Time has remastered the film in 1080p high-definition and the picture, framed in its original 2.35:1 widescreen aspect ratio, is miles better than previous home video editions, particularly MGM's own earlier Region 1 DVD. The grain is kept to an acceptable level and details are strong and clear, while the sun-kissed cinematography of Philip H. Lathrop (The Driver) finds real hidden beauty in the urban environs of the city by the bay. The film's original mono audio is dutifully replicated via an English DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 track that does its job efficiently with little distortion and solid volume control, though some manual adjustment might be needed in order to hear the hushed dialogue. English subtitles are also included.
Extra features include an informative audio commentary track with film historians Paul Seydor. Garner Simmons, and Nick Redman, the retrospective documentary "Passion & Poetry: Sam's Killer Elite" (28 minutes) that examines the making of the film from the contemporary of several of the director's closest colleagues (including co-star Hopkins) with plenty of behind-the-scenes of the man in action on the set, the shorter featurette "Promoting The Killer Elite" (4 minutes) which presents a motion still gallery of domestic and international posters and lobby cards, a selection of television and radio spots (5 minutes), the original theatrical trailer (2 minutes), and an MGM 90th Anniversary trailer. The excellent music score by frequent Peckinpah collaborator Jerry Fielding (this was their last film together) gets its own robust DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 isolated track. Twilight Time's Julie Kirgo contributes another slim booklet of liner notes about The Killer Elite included with this Blu-ray.
The jewel of the supplements though is Noon Wine (51 minutes), an adaptation of Katherine Anne Porter's novel Peckinpah adapted for an episode of the television series ABC Stage 67 in 1966 after he had nearly torpedoed his career with the troubled production of Major Dundee. Wine was greeted with much critical praise and it has been widely attributed with restoring the filmmaker's shaky clout with the studios enough to allow him to make The Wild Bunch. Shot on film and video, Noon Wine stars Jason Robards as a dairy farmer who hires a quiet Swedish man (Per Oscarsson) to help with the responsibilities and develops a strong friendship with him in the process. The story takes a dark turn when a man comes looking for the new farmhand and Robards' character commits a terrible crime to protect his friends, one that systematically destroys him by the end. Noon Wine co-stars Olivia de Havilland, Theodore Bikel, and Peckinpah stock company players Ben Johnson and L.Q. Jones and is a haunting drama that shows what the great filmmaker could do with limited resources, a fine cast, and a story that isn't afraid to show what horrible cruelty even the best of us are capable of in the moment.
Long available for viewing only at the Library of Congress and the Museum of Broadcasting, Noon Wine is presented in standard-definition with an English DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack and no subtitles. The quality isn't up to contemporary standards but given the nature of its production and original presentation it's a wonder the show looks as good as it does and is even being included on this Blu-ray at all. Seydor, Simmons, and Redman provided yet another terrific audio commentary track.
The Killer Elite may be far from a Sam Peckinpah classic, but it's still damn fine entertainment. Another excellent Blu-ray release from Twilight Time. Recommended for Peckinpah completists and fans of morally complex 70's thrillers