You’d think a Sam Peckinpah film about amoral government agents battling ninja couldn’t go wrong. There’s so much potential in The Killer Elite: Gun fights and car chases in San Francisco! James Caan and Robert Duvall together post-Godfather! Mid-’70s Peckinpah!

Ah, but therein lies the rub. That may have been Peckinpah’s most fruitful period, but by 1975, it was also the beginning of the end of his career. There’s a distinct feeling throughout this movie that you’re muddling through a hangover. Many scenes feel disconnected, and so does much of the acting by Caan, who tries for charmingly unpolished but often gives us smarmy, mumbled lines, as if he were coked out. Caan is said to have introduced Peckinpah to cocaine during the shoot, and the rambling incoherency on screen — including the dialogue and direction — certainly seems in line with that.

The film opens promisingly enough, with a rapid-fire cascade of cloak-and-dagger images. Mike Locken (Caan) and partner George Hansen (Duvall) are mercenaries working for Communication Integrity Associates (C.I.A. - get it?) They have a long history together, but something is clearly eating at Hansen. By the time they get to their safe-house, it’s clear what it is: He’s been bought out by a rival organization, and shoots Locken in the arm and leg, leaving him crippled.

Thus begins a leisurely series of scenes in which Locken recovers in a hospital, sweet-talks a nurse into letting him move in, and becomes a martial arts master adept at wielding his cane in dangerous ways. When he gets his strength back, his bosses tell him an Asian client needs protection - from Hansen. The chance for revenge is too good for Locken to pass up.

Locken is the kind of hero you expect from a Peckinpah film: A hippie hustler, given to love beads as much as hair-trigger pistols. Despite the clandestine black-ops on his resume, his pot-smoking girlfriend, who has a North Vietnamese flag pinned up by the fireplace, doesn’t seem to clash with who he is. One can’t help but imagine there’s a little bit of Peckinpah in Caan’s performance, especially in that extended recovery sequence Locken goes through, limping along, lame and ashamed.

That part of the story becomes such a focus that you find yourself checking to make sure this is, indeed, a Peckinpah film. It takes nearly an hour for the bullets to start flying, but whenever the action scenes kick in, that signature is on screen in bold. A martial arts battle on an airport tarmac and a gun fight in Chinatown almost make the wait worth it. The finale is rife with slo-mo and katanas as an army of ninja swarm an abandoned Navy shipyard.

Sadly, the most Peckinpah-esque moments require intense patience. There’s a ton of chaff, including a silly subplot involving a bomb handed to a cop and the painful exposition layered over the airport sequence. The two misfits Locken hires to pull off the job are played by Burt Young and Bo Hopkins, capable actors who aren’t given much to work with. At one point, Young, who plays a mumbly cabbie, suddenly launches into a dry lecture about corrupt power systems abusing civilians. It’s an interesting theme for assassins to be talking about, but feels clearly tacked on, as if someone just remembered what the movie was supposed to be about.

If IMDb is to be believed, The Killer Elite was handed to Peckinpah as commercial redemption after burning all his bridges. Peckinpah pulled that off several years earlier with The Getaway, a classic of the era. Unfortunately, The Killer Elite is little more than an example of directing when one’s worst vices are untamed. Whether it was the drugs or just a lack of interest in the potboiler script, the movie only succeeds in fits and spurts. The rest of the time, it limps along, like a broken animal that knows its best days are over.

Andrew Good is a film critic and writer living in San Diego.

Comments (1)

On January 20, 2012 at 10:13 PM, Bob G. wrote...

I just stumbled along this for free on cable. Having read many negative reviews I had not spent the money to buy it but would have to say that it was a pleasing middle of the night diversion. Andrew makes a very good point about the seeming “fogginess” of Sam and James Caan but I must say that the off handed manner in which the “heroes” seem to sleep walk through the violent scenes is sort of endearing — almost as if the whole thing was a parody of sorts.

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