Peckinpah's 1975 thriller is infuriatingly uneven. It is also one of his most interesting films, throwing the director's preoccupations into relief. It was made between the gothic thriller Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia (1974), and his last great film, Cross Of Iron (1977). As the critic Pauline Kael noted, it was a way of proving himself alive to the Hollywood establishment, a "transparent disguise for... determination to show Hollywood that he's not dead yet... that, despite the tabloid views of him, frail and falling down drunk, he's got the will to make great movies." It's no accident that this is a film in which the director stresses his auteurism with more than the usual self-consciousness (the words 'directed by' and 'Sam Peckinpah' are separated by an emphatic crosscut in the opening credits). Neither that it is one in which the theme of rehabilitation or, more specifically, recuperation - dominates the dramatic matter in hand, giving the narrative a lopsidedness from which it never really recovers.
Kung Fu plot notwithstanding, at the centre of The Killer Elite is the relationship between Locken (James Caan) and Hansen (Robert Duvall). The shifting balance between two men, who find themselves on opposite sides of the law, recall similar relationships in Ride The High Country (1962), between Steve Judd and Gil Westrum, or in The Wild Bunch (1969), between Pike Bishop and Deke Thornton. "I can't figure why he didn't put the third one in my head," says Locken, brooding in hospital. "He's your buddy," is the characteristic reply. Locken and Hansen may travel further apart than the other examples of broken camaraderie in Peckinpah's work, but their mutual respect remains intact to the end. In the shoot out at the darkened quay, despite his thirst for revenge, Locken walks away from his former partner in disgust and he's not responsible for the final bullet.
The relationship between the two men is what focuses Locken's life and gives his actions perspective. Once his buddy is dead, his character loses all motivation, and then the movie its soul. What's left is a ramshackle kung fu killer plot, which any competent straight-to-video producer could have scribbled down on the back of an envelope. Peckinpah's other films frequently end when the central partnership was irrevocably dissolved. For all of its martial pyrotechnics, The Killer Elite just goes on too long.
The most successful part of the film is contained within the opening third. The first operation, Hansen's initial betrayal (which occurs in a world of surveillance that anticipates The Osterman Weekend, 1983), and the mechanics of Locken's physical reconstruction are, by turn, engrossing. It's a time of development and learning for Locken. From the casual sex of the opening the injured agent has to adjust, restrain his bitterness ("I'll just limp out of here"), and establishes a more permanent relationship with his nurse while on the mend. From embracing a broad, Locken ends up clutching a bedpan, then grasps at any chance to re-establish himself as whole. Peckinpah found delineating the mending processes so engrossing that the belated introduction of Negato Toku (Tak Kubota) as "Godfather of all the ninja assassins," and then Locken's fortuitous assignment to protect Yuen Cheung (Mako) against death within the USA are like dramatic afterthoughts, tellingly summarised in conversation over the airport fight.
These airport scenes, however expertly cut together by the director, are perhaps amongst the most gratuitous scenes of violence in his oeuvre. The fighting is dwelt on purely as a means to patch over a glaring narrative fault line, carrying along some clumsy verbal exposition. It has none of the catharsis, or brutal poetry, familiar from the director's other films. Locken's recuperation has proved a distraction. After his hospital a scene, the belated 'catching up' scene feels at best rushed, at worst intrusive. Worse, we sense Peckinpah is just not as emotionally engaged with martial arts as he is with the matter of the Old West. (A feeling underlined when Locken watches the final ninja swordfight with calculated disinterest, calmly betting on the result.) An obvious sop to those fans who wanted more of the action exemplified in Clouse's Enter The Dragon of two years previously, the kung fu in Peckinpah's film is vigorous, filmed with style, but remains peculiarly unconvincing. Strip away the martial arts and what remains is far more interesting and consistent with Peckinpah's personal philosophy. As in his other films there is a theme running through The Killer Elite, one of honour and the inexorable passing of the old ways. One thinks of the mothballed fleet the scene of the final confrontation, a veritable graveyard of former pride and glory. "You've just been retired Mike, enjoy it," says Hansen after crippling Locken. "You just retired, Cap," echoes Locken in irony, when addressing his traitorous superior at the end. In The Killer Elite, a new order is recognised: that of power systems, none of which care about civilians, or integrity - a recognition enunciated rather surprisingly by the shambling Miller (a scruffy Bo Hopkins). Cap Collins (Arthur Hill) had earlier put these changes more succinctly: "Would you believe that heroism has become old fashioned?" So half-baked and ludicrous is the action plot that much of the film's other pleasure comes from incidentals. The initial friendship between Locken and Hansen for instance, or Miller's girlfriend calling everyone 'Mr Davies'; the editing of the explosive opening sequence; or the bomb-under-the-car scene, ending with the distant explosion (pure comic 'business' rare in Peckinpah); Caan's sensitive performance. Allied to this is Jerry Fielding's score, an outstanding contribution from a composer who worked with the director on several occasions, as well as the acting in support from Peckinpah regulars like Hopkins. In short, The Killer Elite is something of curate's egg, only good in parts but, with all its unsatisfactory elements, still essential viewing for admirers of this director.