Reel Action: The Killer Elite (1975)

Last Updated on July 23, 2021

Rating: 3 out of 4

Tagline: 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.

Directed by: Sam Peckinpah
Starring: James Caan, Robert Duvall, Burt Young, Mako, Arthur Hill and Gig Young

THE PLAN: After almost being killed by a longtime associate and suffering through a painful recovery, shadowy mercenary Mike Locken is recruited by the C.I.A. to help take down a group of assassins – which includes his ex-friend.

THE KILL: The Sam Peckinpah films of the 60s and 70s can always be counted upon for their pitiless worldview. Double-crossers and revenge-seekers populate his films, which carry with them a white-knuckled cynicism. Most of the time they feature middle-aged men who kill for a living, and most of the time, these murderers for hire and other bad boys who carry guns for a living pull the trigger with an exhale of exhaustion. No Country for Old Men, in other words, especially when these old men have seen enough death for a lifetime.

The characters in THE KILLER ELITE are an aging bunch, mercenaries who have done dirty work for the C.I.A and other corrupt organizations. We focus on Mike Locklen and George Hansen (James Caan and Robert Duvall), two pals who are in the process of living it up while protecting a witness for the C.I.A. These guys look like they’ve seen and done it all. But the fact is, Mike hasn’t seen it all. Not yet. He hasn’t seen himself be betrayed by a friend, and that’s just what happens when George shoots him and the witness; apparently having been playing for a different side this time.

They don’t call him Robert “Surprise HJ in the Car” Duvall for nuthin’…

Mike’s recovery is long and slow, and he has a lot of time to simmer on what’s been done to him. In a weird way, he’s past being surprised; such is the way of the world he lives in. It just hurts a little more when it’s a guy you thought was your friend.

After Mike has fully recuperated and effectively taken himself out of the game, he gets a call from his old boss. Of course, they need him for something; a special job working as a bodyguard for an Asian politician who is under siege from assassins. Mike is skeptical, uninterested… until he learns that his old buddy George is one of the guns aiming for the politician. That catches Mike interest, all right.

Always remember to get your groin out of the way when a ninja is doing the hokey pokey

THE KILLER ELITE finds Peckinpah in a most energetic mood; the film has a sense of fun and enjoyment about it that’s a little more upbeat than his darker tales of bloody retribution. Even in this nihilistic environment, these guys are still living in the swinging San Francisco 70s, so they might as well enjoy themselves. The film frequently displays a goofy sense of humor, with a few gags that would be more at home in a comedy than a gritty action drama. (Check out the scene with the cop and the bomb.) Hell, this flick improbably ends with a ninja fight aboard a battleship, and there’s nothing quite so amusing as watching dudes mow down an onslaught of ninjas with machine guns.

James Caan is perfectly cast as Mike. Caan has always played the cool-under-pressure type; you won’t see the guy blink if you point a gun in his face, and the only time he looses his icy disposition is when he’s kicking your ass. He’s sort of the perfect actor for Peckinpah, who likes his leading men to be tough, bitter and unafraid of what’s coming. That describes THE KILLER ELITE pretty well, too, come to think of it.

TOP ACTION:The aforementioned ninjas-versus-machine guns is too good to pass up; althoguh there’s a nifty shootout in a busy San Francisco street around the mid-way point.

TOP DEATH: The fellows deal in lead, so it’s a lot of bullets to the skull. I did enjoy one guy getting his entire back riddled by an uzi, however.

TOP DIALOGUE: ”Where do we go from here?” -”You’re going to a dirt farm. We’re going to party.”

HOMOEROTIC MOMENT: Mike and George live together initially; George even walks in on Mike and a babe to hand him some juice. It’s a tad odd.

FEMALE EXPLOITATION: In an early sequence, Mike and George are chilling with a fine bevy of babes; this is one party you’d definitely want to attend. Otherwise, however, there’s not a ton of lady-bits to speak of.

DRINKING GAME: As this is a Peckinpah movie, I’ll make yo drink every time we have a rapid fire sequence of cuts, with a slow-mo death interspersed throughout. Happens a few times, naturally.

TRIVIA: Caan and Duvall appeared together in THE GODFATHER two years earlier.

To my surprise, this film is rated PG, despite plentiful violence and bloodshed. Apparently, Peckinpah cut the film down from an R with the explicit purpose of obtaining the softer rating.


Source: Arrow in the Head

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Eric Walkuski is a longtime writer, critic, and reporter for He's been a contributor for over 15 years, having written dozens of reviews and hundreds of news articles for the site. In addition, he's conducted almost 100 interviews as JoBlo's New York correspondent.