The Action/Adventure Section: THE KILLER ELITE: Peckinpah + Ninjas = A Gleefully Uneven Viewing…

The Action/Adventure Section — A regular column that will exclusively highlight and review action movies. The most likely suspects? Action cinema of the 1970s and 1980s. But no era will be spurned. As the column grows, the intent will be to re-capture the whimsy of perusing the aisles of your local video store with only ragingly kick ass cover art to aide you in your quest for sweaty action glory. Here we will celebrate the beefy. This is a safe place where we still believe that one lone hero can save humanity by sheer force of will and generous steroid usage.


– MEN WANTED. Private company with C.I.A. contract seeks men willing to risk life. Perfect physical condition. Experience with weaponry, incendiaries, Karate/Judo. No loyalties. No dependents. Long career doubtful.

– They Protect Us from the Enemy. But Who Protects Us from Them?

– Pain is Only a Side Effect, Death is the Cure

There was a time (and that time was 1975) where, when James Caan needed to hire the baddest of the badasses to go up against an army of ninjas… he would hire Burt Young and his trusty modified taxi cab. Yes, you just saw the word “ninjas” in the same sentence as “Burt Young”, and now, in this sentence, you’ll also see another surprising name: fabled Director Sam Peckinpah. I’ve narrowed the playing field down pretty far here. If we’re talking Burt Young, ninjas, and Sam Peckinpah, we can only be talking about The Killer Elite.

Written by Sterling Silliphant, who won the Oscar in 1968 for the screenplay to In The Heat Of The Night, (And Marc Norman, who won his own Oscars for his involvement in Shakespeare In Love) this screenplay spends a lot of time in a realm somewhat approaching reality before culminating in… Burt Ward fighting a horde of ninjas [gloriously]. We begin with a biting exploration of the shadowy world of private contract spies, of which James Caan’s Mike Locken and Robert Duvall’s George Hansen are a part. There’s a telling opening crawl that describes real life government reports about these types of organizations and their dubious work, and then notes the United States’ disavowal of the existence of such private contractors… so anything in this film is obviously fantasy. Peckinpah seems to be winking at us from go, and I kind of love it. The friendship and pent up angst between Caan and Duvall is wonderful. Their friendship seems to go way back, and we’re shown this through multiple sequences in which Caan and Duvall are clearly ad libbing together and having a blast off script. Which makes it all the more shocking when a betrayal happens, and we spend the rest of the first half of the film experiencing Locken’s excruciating road to recovery through both modern medicine and training in the martial arts. Here The Killer Elite morphs into a man’s struggle against adversity in which we root for ole’ Jimmy Caan to will his way back to health so he can get his blue-blooded American vengeance. This summary covers almost the entire first half of the film, which is the half of the film containing some genuinely compelling drama and exploration of friendship, betrayal, power structures, and the iron will of one man.

The second half of the movie continues to prick at the wiles of the powerful as double cross after double cross leads to a three-fronted confrontation on a derelict floating ship graveyard in which Mike Locken and his rag tag group of rejects go up against said army of ninjas in order to protect a political dissident. The film kind of spirals out of control on the back half, introducing some broad comedy elements, and seeming to laud the powers of martial arts to mold the injured Mike into a reborn killer, while simultaneously concluding in an army of ninjas being demonstrably taken apart by a couple of six shooters, some derisive laughter, and the greatest secret weapon of all: Burt Young. Then throw in the addition of writer Silliphant’s girlfriend Tiana (who I only recently discovered via our own Victor Pryor, and who had a brief action heroine career, perhaps most notably in the similarly Silliphant penned Catch The Heat), who was apparently hated by most of the cast and crew, and you have a film that doesn’t seem to know what it is about or what tone it is going for. But since it is Sam Peckinpah and there are ninjas… you just have to love.

While The Killer Elite can’t be considered among Sam Peckinpah’s greatest films, I can’t deny a personal affinity for it. Beyond my now-overly-referenced ninja element, there’s also some wonderfully shot action set pieces, a certain 1970s American fascination with martial arts that are shot in Peckinpah’s legendary slow motion, and a couple of great performances from Caan and Duvall riffing off of one another. While the movie manages to escape beyond the control of its own makers, it nevertheless manages to be memorable on almost every level.

The Package

I know, I know. I’m cheating and covering a home video release here in The Action/Adventure Section. But you know what? If a 1970s Peckinpah film featuring numerous action set pieces doesn’t belong here, then I don’t know what does. But I can’t short the fine folks at Twilight Time and not discuss the fabulous full package that they put together here for this Blu-ray release.

Perhaps the most noteworthy “bonus feature” on this release is an entire television episode written and directed by Peckinpah in 1966 that had previously been lost to history and only ever broadcast on television one time before. Noon Wine is an episode of the short lived ABC television series Stage 67, which starred Jason Robards and Olivia de Havilland, and was only recently re-discovered in a collector’s archive in a less-than-stellar print that is nonetheless better than having been erased from history. An interesting exercise in seeing the writing and aspiration of a project reach far beyond the confines of the television medium at the time, Noon Wine is undoubtedly very “television” in style, but is an engaging drama that goes in surprising directions and apparently played a significant hand in allowing Peckinpah to direct feature films again after a period of being blacklisted. Twilight Time even includes a commentary track for Noon Wine given by host Nick Redman and Peckinpah historians Paul Seydor and Garner Simmons, who also provide a commentary track for The Killer Elite as well.

So, beyond a wonderful transfer on The Killer Elite, a never before seen Peckinpah program, and expert commentaries for both, what more would anyone need? There’s also an archival featurette about Peckinpah, trailers and promo spots, and Twilight Time’s ever present isolated score track (from composer Jerry Fielding).

And last but not least, Julie Kirgo’s liner notes cap off this great release. I was very tempted to skip over Noon Wine due to my schedule being very rushed at the moment. But Kirgo’s essay convinced me that I couldn’t allow my stress level to squelch an opportunity for cinematic exploration. I don’t think I was blown away by Noon Wine, but it is certainly well worth the investment of one hour to take in a largely unseen piece of Peckinpah’s work that meant more to his career than most any casual or even hardcore cinema fan probably knew. Twilight Time releases are where I’ve done some of my best and most rewarding cinematic exploration over the past year or so, and this release further exemplifies why I’ll gladly check out anything they invest the time in to release.

The Killer Elite is available as of this writing in a 3000 unit limited edition Blu-ray release from Twilight Time.

And I’m Out.

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