The Killer Elite (1975) Blu-ray Review: The Wrath of Caan

Sam Peckinpah sets his bloody sights on a tale of covert government agents and stealthy ninja assassins. What’s not to love there?
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Sam Peckinpah's legacy on the world of film was something most people in the industry certainly never saw coming. Consistent undermined by studio executives who sought to correct what they perceived to be filmmaking flaws, the director of such now-legendary classics like Straw Dogs, Junior Bonner, and The Getaway usually wound up having his films re-cut without his permission. Combined with his own flawed human nature - alcoholism, substance abuse, and the ever-troublesome depression - eventually turned a promising talent into that washed-up talent no one would want to hire. (Also see: Bela Lugosi.)

Yet, Peckinpah's films are widely regarded as classics today. While Sergio Leone and company may very well receive most of the credit when it came to incorporating elements such as brutality and the anti-heroic aspect of nihilism into what we now dub Spaghetti Westerns, Mr. Peckinpah was one of the first men to add those factors into his own American motion picture equations, beginning most notably with The Wild Bunch in 1969. By the time 1975 rolled around, however, the innovativeness of something like violence in the movies - particularly that of mainstream ones - had started to become decidedly commonplace. At the same time, Peckinpah had practically hit rock bottom.

Following the disastrous reception of Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia - a film which has since developed a cult following and is now hailed as a classic - Peckinpah set his sights on a tale of a covert American agent. Here, James Caan, still riding a tidal wave known as The Godfather, reunited once more with his co-star from that film (and its sequel), Robert Duvall. They set out as intimate colleagues, both of whom work as private contractors for the CIA. But their friendship is soon cast aside once Duvall goes rogue - shooting his longtime pal in the elbow and kneecap, woefully declaring that it is time for him to retire; a synonym for "Be thankful I let you live."

But our newfound bad guy will someday learn that there is nothing worse than the wrath of Caan. Even when your distributors edit most of the violence out to obtain a PG rating at a time when violence is practically everywhere in film. (Go figure.)

After many months of rehabilitation, Caan - with the aid of an arm and leg brace as well as a walking stick - recovers to the point where he feels he is able to go back into active duty again. And he gets his chance when his handler Arthur Hill assigns him the task of protecting an Asian agent (Mako) from a deadly slew of martial arts experts (including a shitload of the clumsiest and slowest-moving ninja warriors I have ever seen on film), with his ol' buddy Duvall backing them up as a gunman. Thus, Caan recruits his former cohorts Bo Hopkins (as his own trigger-happy gunman) and Burt Young (as his wheelman). Another actor named Young, this one sporting the Christian name of Gig, also stars as Arthur Hill's superior, who gets one of the film's funniest scenes as he mercilessly forces Hill to go over stock reports.

Another amusing sequence found in the film can be found amid the epic climactic battle between Caan's motley crew of professionals against a group of ninja aboard a mothballed wartime vessel in Suisun Bay, as James Caan and Burt Young casually mock the foreign fighting styles of Mako and his opponent as the two fight to the death with razor sharp blades. Additionally, some rather spiritless editing, mostly during this grand fisticuff finale, may tend to generate an unintentional giggle or two from its audience. Reportedly, Peckinpah prepared for filmmaking by watching Bruce Lee movies, though it isn't very apparent in the finished work. Truth be told, the whole film is a bit rocky (Peckinpah wasn't exactly in his prime here, and it shows), but it's still a fun ride overall.

The film also features (in small parts) Victor Sen Yung, Number Two Son in many a Charlie Chan movie from yesteryear (in one of his last roles); co-producer Helmut Dantine as a doomed client; Swedish sexpot Uschi Digard as a girl (with her two big, bouncing, beautiful friends!) at a party. Two-Lane Blacktop director Monte Hellman was co-editor, Stirling Silliphant (Village of the Damned, In the Heat of the Night) and Marc Norman (Shakespeare in Love) wrote the original screenplay based on a novel by Robert Rostand, and frequent Peckinpah collaborator Jerry Fielding provided his last score for the filmmaker.

Fielding's soundtrack is just one of several special features available on Twilight Time's new Blu-ray release of this United Artists action flick, presented in a 2.0 DTS-HD MA lossless track. The film's original soundtrack is offered up here in a glorious 1.0 DTS-HD MA selection, with an optional, informative audio commentary by film historians Nick Redman, Paul Seydor, and Garner Simmons also available. Regarding the video transfer of the title, Twilight Time's presentation of The Killer Elite boasts an often-breathtakingly beautiful 2.35:1 widescreen transfer, which is highlighted by strong colors and fine detail. Some darker/nighttime scenes show off a good deal of natural film grain and noise, which is to be expected for '70s filmstock. Optional English (SDH) subtitles are also provided.

While this may be the second Peckinpah release from Twilight Time, this single disc just happens to include one of the most coveted projects from the late director. The 1966 made-for-television special Noon Wine, produced for the short-lived ABC Stage '67 series, gives us an early look at an aspiring visionary. The tale stars Jason Robards as a poor dairy farmer who takes in a wandering Swedish immigrant (Per Oscarsson) who turns out to be a damn fine worker, if a little weird. Several years later, after Robards' farm has started to thrive thanks to his help, an offensive stranger (Theodore Bikel) shows up looking for the Swede, and things take a turn for the worse. Olivia de Havilland and Ben Johnson also star in Peckinpah's adaptation of the Katherine Anne Porter story, which is presented here in the best-possible quality available with an optional audio commentary by Nick Redman, Paul Seydor, and Garner Simmons once again.

Twilight Time rounds up The Killer Elite with an elite item of a different nature: Passion and Poetry: Sam's Killer Elite, a snippet from the German-based El Dorado Productions documentary Passion & Poetry: The Ballad of Sam Peckinpah. The 28-minute clip is edited to focus primarily on The Killer Elite and features interviews with cast and crew related to that project as well as other individuals who worked with Peckinpah (many of whom have passed on since the discussions were filmed up to over a decade ago). A selection trailer/TV spots and advertising art (as usual, the Japanese have the coolest artwork) and the always-delightful liner notes by that stealthy ninja, Julie Kirgo.

The Killer Eilte is limited to a pressing of 3,000 copies and is available exclusively from Screen Archives while supplies last.

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