Part action picture, part conspiracy thriller, and part revenge epic, The Killer Elite is a mess. As directed by Sam Peckinpah, whose creative decline was rapidly underway at this point, the picture boasts a handful of exciting scenes and several vivid performances, but its intentions are as vague as its storyline. James Caan and Robert Duvall star as a pair of gunmen who work for a private espionage group that’s hired by the CIA for covert operations like securely transporting international political figures who’ve been targeted for assassination by foreign governments. For reasons that are never particularly clear, Hansen (Duvall) shoots Locken (Caan) after a successful operation, betraying his buddy and leaving Locken a near-cripple thanks to wounds to his elbow and knee.
The movie then devotes about 30 minutes to methodical scenes showing Locken’s recovery; as soon as Locken’s back in fighting shape, Hansen conveniently surfaces with a contract to kill an Asian dissident (Mako). Locken recruits a driver (Burt Young) and a sniper (Bo Hopkins) to help protect the dissident and, with any luck, confront Hansen. Also layered into the story are a series of double- and triple-crosses involving Locken’s bosses (Arthur Hill and Gig Young). Oh, and there are ninjas, too. Lots of ninjas.
None of it makes very much sense, but the journey is still somewhat interesting because Caan is so charismatic and because Peckinpah knows how to shoot action scenes. (Extensive San Francisco location photography is another plus.) When The Killer Elite clicks, it delivers visceral moments like a shootout in a crowded street that expands into a nasty high-speed car chase. When the movie doesn’t click, it delivers spastic sequences like the climactic confrontation, during which Locken’s crew takes on an army of ninjas aboard a decommissioned warship, all of which leads up to a big swordfight between two supporting characters. Whatever.
Luckily, the picture knows better than to take itself seriously, so sarcastic humor is woven into nearly every scene. Caan’s buddy-movie shtick with his sidekicks is terrific (Young is consistently amusing and Hopkins is memorably twitchy), and it’s also entertaining to watch Caan’s character get exasperated whenever the dissident spouts Eastern philosophy. “I understand now,” Caan opines bitchily at one point. “He wants to go back and die on his native soil. It’s that salmon-up-the-river shit.”
The Killer Elite: FUNKY