James Caan Versus Robert Duvall
Considered one of the lesser lights in director Samuel Peckinpah’s career, The Killer Elite reunites two ‘70s screen icons from The Godfather in a CIA-driven action thriller. Pitting a crippled James Caan versus a merciless Robert Duvall, the actioner takes a deep dive into the world of contract killers and spooks off the government books with detours into martial arts and melodrama. It’s not quite electric as the talent involved would suggest but Peckinpah mines entertainingly slick suspense and hot action from a convoluted narrative. At least until a wacky final showdown involving ninjas throws a wrench into things.
Close friends George Hansen (Robert Duvall) and Mike Locken (James Caan) are contract killers, spooks who do the dirty work for the CIA and other intel agencies. Locken is brutally crippled in a surprise attack and betrayal by Hansen. Locken is told he’s in no shape for their kind of work and eagerly jumps at the chance of getting back in when an Asian politician needs protection. The old friends inevitably clash when facing each other from opposing sides, resulting in a deadly showdown… with ninjas on a naval ship.
The Killer Elite is pure 1970s action with a great cast and a famous director
The Killer Elite is pure 1970s action with a great cast and a famous director
Beautiful location shooting in San Francisco and a gritty, tense opening act set the stage for the uneven thriller. The big issue many have with The Killer Elite is Duvall’s missing screen time. The first twenty minutes are a taut peek into the world of CIA assassins, brilliantly depicted by Caan and Duvall together in a series of character building moments. Duvall’s character nearly disappears for an hour, only to return when Locken makes a comeback after a long interlude of intense physical rehabilitation and martial arts training. Peckinpah’s film leans as much into melodrama as it does crisp action.
Peckinpah’s signature action flair and trademark direction are partially absent, possibly a result of his alleged introduction to cocaine while filming. His masterful touch shows up in spurts, notably in the final climax. This is not his best work by any means. The Killer Elite is a fairly typical conspiracy thriller of its period with several high points and a few lowlights. Boiled down, the story is a dirty game of inner-office politics within the CIA.
If you ever wondered how Peckinpah would handle ninjas, look no further. It’s believed this is the first time Hollywood tackled them on screen, inspiring a generation of Cannon films a decade later. They aren’t treated with much respect, literally battling guns with their swords in predictable outcomes. You can’t call yourself a cinema fan without seeing waves of ninjas mowed down in broad daylight on a naval ship.
Bo Hopkins has a tasty supporting role as a psychotic gun expert and Burt Young of Rocky fame provides a reliable backbone. The cast fits nicely together, though Caan carries most of the weight. The Killer Elite attempted to take advantage of the growing martial arts craze in the wake of Bruce Lee with tepid results. Locken learns how to fight for his life at a San Francisco dojo, using his crutches as brutal weapons.
The Killer Elite is pure 1970s action with a great cast and a famous director. It’s not a groundbreaking film despite its pedigree. Keep expectations in check and its small pleasures will catch you by surprise.
Imprint licenses The Killer Elite from MGM in what is a surprisingly great film transfer. Almost certainly struck from the negative within recent times, a wonderfully vintage actioner from the ’70s looks better than ever. It boasts nice colors, healthy flesh-tones, a lively contrast and fairly crisp definition. Without directly comparing Imprint’s disc with their competitors from Twilight Time and others, it’s doubtful Peckinpah’s thriller could look any nicer in 1080p resolution. This is a state-of-the-art effort with few noticeable issues.
The 2.35:1 presentation exudes depth with organic grain reproduction, a film-like effort with minimal processing. Elements are in superb condition, revealing superior definition and fine detail. Lensed by Philip Lathrop, exteriors offer pleasant color saturation and clean shadow delineation. Black levels are thick and heavy, appropriately dense as the film stock demands.
Imprint gives the entire uncensored theatrical cut its own BD-50, running over 123 minutes. The efficient AVC encode swiftly captures the full fidelity of the gritty ’70s cinematography with ruthless perfection.
The bonus here is the inclusion of the alternate theatrical cut, running 116 minutes, on its own BD-25 in excellent quality. A version seen largely in European markets, the video is on par with the main presentation on disc one.
The original monaural soundtrack for both cuts of the film are offered in satisfactory 2.0 PCM audio. The mono is on the quiet sound with excellent dialogue reproduction. Composer Jerry Fielding’s score has fine dynamics, balanced with the occasional gun shot or punch. Action scenes could pack more punch, everything sounds a bit flat.
The Killer Elite’s soundtrack is a reflection of its time and period. Despite its studio pedigree and star power, the recording is generally a bit thin and tinny.
Optional English subtitles play in a white font outside the scope presentation.
The Killer Elite was poorly served on DVD, given a paltry bare-bones offering by MGM. That has changed completely on Blu-ray. First, Twilight Time issued it in North America with several special features around a decade ago. That disc is long out of print, recently picked up by Scorpion Releasing with a different and lesser assortment of bonus features. The primary special features from Twilight Time’s BD are included in this fantastic 2-disc limited edition from Australian label Imprint, #192 in their collection. We now have a definitive home video release for the underrated Peckinpah movie.
Imprint’s set is cool just on a physical level alone, not to mention all the extra goodies. Two clear Blu-ray cases are packaged inside a hardbox with a top which slides off. The limited edition set includes two cuts of the film on separate discs, as well as a new commentary, new interviews, new featurettes and a surplus of excellent archival features.
Imprint provides a packed release, region-free and playable for the entire planet. It is limited to 1500 units and a must for hardcore Peckinpah fans. The big lure is the inclusion of the alternate “theatrical” cut, a shorter version primarily seen in Europe which cuts out roughly seven minutes of the film’s first act and some of Caan’s martial arts training.
Audio commentary by Peckinpah expert Mike Siegel – A new commentary from the passionate Peckinpah fan and expert.
Audio commentary by film historians Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons and Nick Redman – A lucid group commentary focusing on the score and other topics pulled over from the Twilight Time disc.
Passion & Poetry: Sam’s Killer Elite (29:02 in HD – An older featurette with actor Bo Hopkins and others, including some vintage behind-the-scenes footage from the movie.
The Passion & The Poetry Project (43:35 in HD) – Documentary filmmaker Mike Siegel discusses his long fascination with Sam Peckinpah and personal history covering the man.
Passion & Poetry: Peckinpah Anecdotes (25:42 in HD) – A compilation of interviews and clips discussing Peckinpah from many famous actors who worked with the director: Kris Kristofferson, Ernest Borgnine, James Coburn, David Warner, Ali MacGraw, L.Q. Jones, Bo Hopkins, R.G. Armstrong and Isela Vega.
Film historian Kim Newman on The Killer Elite (22:41 in HD) – The critic and historian candidly delves into the movie, covering it from a different perspective.
Elaine on Elite (12:06 in HD) – A new interview with Hollywood stylist Elaine Bowerbank, who was James Caan’s personal hairdresser on the film.
San Francisco Plays Itself (13:05 in HD) – A new video essay by filmmaker Daniel Kremer covering the various shooting locations in the film near the Golden Gate Bridge and certain streets.
Promoting The Killer Elite – Image Gallery (04:20 in HD)
Shooting The Killer Elite – Image Gallery (04:52 in HD)
The Killer Elite in pictures – Image Gallery (07:55 in HD)
TV Spots & Radio Spots (05:02 in SD)
Isolated Score Audio Track (2.0 Dolby Digital)
Theatrical Trailer (02:08 in SD)
Full disclosure: This Blu-ray was provided by the label for review. This has not affected DoBlu’s editorial process. For information on how we handle review material, please visit our about us page.
The Killer Elite
Peckinpah reunites two screen legends from The Godfather for a haphazard but entertaining CIA action thriller with ninjas
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