Monday, September 29, 2014

THE KILLER ELITE: Blu-ray (United Artists 1975) Twilight Time

The last act finales of director, Sam Peckinpah’s life and career are decidedly not what he would have wished for; a free fall into the oblivion of drug and alcohol abuse that, in hindsight, impugned his usual clear-eyed vision for bringing nail-biting big-time entertainments to the screen. Alas by the early 1970’s, Peckinpah’s own fatalism, coupled with his bitter resentment at Hollywood’s sudden disinterest in the trajectory of his career – when, only a few short years before, he had been hailed by its sycophants as its latest auteur – was cause enough for Peckinpah to steady come to despise the purpose for his creative outlets. Ironically, it’s a total lack of purpose that submarines The Killer Elite (1975); a movie begun with high aspirations, perhaps, but virtually imploding almost immediately after its attention-grabbing prologue. The Killer Elite is, frankly, a mess; a compendium of too many good ideas given short shrift by Peckinpah’s increasing dissatisfaction with his life’s work in general and this movie in particular.
Part of the friction stemmed from Peckinpah’s inability to hammer out a cohesive screenplay during preproduction; Marc Norman’s original draft handed over to Academy-award winning writer, Stirling Silliphant – whom Peckinpah grew to dislike after Silliphant’s provisions for revising Norman’s claptrap included Peckinpah having to cast his wife, Tiana Alexandra as the movie’s love interest. In Silliphant’s screenplay Asian exile, Tommie (Alexandra) pursues James Caan’s ruthless and avenging assassin, Mike Locken. Perhaps owing to the realization Alexandra was hardly an actress, Peckinpah begrudgingly tolerated her involvement, but then went about minimizing her impact wherever possible. In the final edit, Alexandra is hardly in the picture; her part reduced to a walk-on; decidedly not what she had signed on to play. The aspiring starlet would create her own bad press when, unaware her mic was still turned on between takes, she made the rather offhanded and off-colored comment to a friend, that working on Peckinpah’s set was having to endure the company of people she otherwise would not have even considered taking a ‘shit’ on.
While the working relationship between Alexandra and Peckinpah would go downhill from there (indeed, Peckinpah excised virtually all of her key moments from the screenplay - she's afforded only one brief close-up) James Caan and Peckinpah would develop a healthy mutual respect for one another to endure long after the cameras stopped rolling. Not so much between Peckinpah and the movie’s costar, Robert Duvall; who refused to play a pivotal moment where his character, George Hansen takes a rooftop potshot at Japanese diplomat, Yuen Chung (Mako) as he disembarks from a plane. Peckinpah ran into considerable stalemates when shooting this sequence; airport security believing such a breech would shed unflattering light on airport security in general. In one of the movie’s most ridiculous misfires, Hansen’s bullet manages to accidentally kill an unsuspecting bystander; the airport sequence devolving into a chaotic display of bad martial arts sloppily executed and even less gracefully hacked together in the editing room: in hindsight, the beginning of the end for The Killer Elite’s cache as an action/thriller. 
Peckinpah had, in fact, begun The Killer Elite under a dark cloud. His previous picture, Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974) was an abysmal box office flop. Although The Killer Elite would turn a profit, it was hardly the little dynamo; perhaps because Peckinpah utterly gave up on his storytelling somewhere along the way, simply focused on finishing the film to collect his paycheck. The kerfuffle over Duvall’s refusal to ascend the tower from which his George Hansen supposedly fires into the unsuspecting crowd (Duvall had a genuine fear of heights) soured Peckinpah on the actor almost entirely. In Silliphant’s original screenplay, the dramatic impetus for the film’s climax was to have been a showdown between Hansen and Locken; adversaries ever since Hansen all but destroyed Locken’s ability to function as a paid assassin by wounding him in the elbow and knee.
This plot point became lost – or rather muddled – in Peckinpah’s chronic tinkering with the script; Hansen unceremoniously dispatched by the slightly psychotic, Jerome Miller (Bo Hopkins), so nicknamed the ‘patron poet of all manic depressives’ by Locken who, upon his lengthy rehabilitation, is rife with vengeance for his arch nemesis. This, alas, is denied him when Miller puts a bullet through Hansen. Regrettably, like most of the story elements, this one makes absolutely no sense at all; the machinations behind Locken’s cloak and dagger wrapped up in the barest of scenarios; that the secret organization of assassins both he and Hansen used to belong to is involved in an in-house 'house-cleaning' perpetuated by its wily puppet master, Lawrence Weyburn (Gig Young).  
There are, in fact, far too many good ideas wasted in The Killer Elite; the movie’s Bruce Lee-ish decade-long fascination with Ninja warriors carried to its absurd extreme herein. Considering the Ninja are supposed to be a superior sect of combatants, their poise, stealth and agility is remarkably off in this movie; their small army of vicious Kendo-wielding mercenaries easily dispatched by Locken, using a common walking stick as his weapon of choice; also, shot at random and cast over the sides of abandoned warships by the ragtag team Locken has assembled on the fly to keep Yuen Chung alive. This consists of the aforementioned Miller and a garage mechanic, Mac (Burt Young) who, in one of the movie’s most lethally ill-conceived moments of ‘suspense’ suddenly pulls over the taxi he, Locken and Miller are using as their getaway car, to diffuse a car bomb affixed to its undercarriage. Exactly how Mac deduces the bomb is there remains a mystery never entirely explained away.
One of the most unintentionally laughable aspects of The Killer Elite is that while it reports to be a story about the best of the best engaging one another in their rogue vocation, mano a mano, the reality is that virtually none of these paid assassins is even marginally competent in their work; their cumulative ineptitude painfully illustrated in the movie’s Chinatown sequence. Peckinpah gives us a pseudo-send-up to his Wild Bunch with Locken and Mac evacuating Yuen Chung and his daughter, Tommie (also a Ninja) from a second story apartment. It’s a painfully silly sequence to wade through; Mac refusing to drive away until Locken jumps in the backseat, the taxi surrounded by machine-gun toting cutthroats, who spray the entire area with a small arsenal of firepower but never manage to hit the vehicle with a single squib. This inane display of uber-violence is matched in its absurdity only by Peckinpah’s staging of the penultimate showdown aboard the mothballed fleet moored at Suisun Bay; Locken taking care of business by affording his corrupt superior, Cap Collis (Arthur Hill) a bullet in the knee and elbow – remuneration for his own ‘forced retirement’ from this mysterious league of un-extraordinary gentlemen.  
The finale to The Killer Elite is, frankly, a joke, and a thoroughly unfunny one at that; the Ninja assassins bearing down on Locken, Mac, Miller, Tommie and Yuen Chung, their sword-play no match against Miller’s machine-gun; Locken forced to engage a few of these highly prized warriors with a common walking stick as his only weapon of defense. Peckinpah shoots this sequence with a thorough lack of edginess or even a fleeting proclivity for carnage in slow-mo; something his filmmaker’s reputation is known for elsewhere and equally has thrived upon. But the action herein is kept at a distance; its’ staged maneuvers never catching fire as visceral, spur-of-the-moment acts of aggression.
Perhaps part of the problem with The Killer Elite is that there is virtually no camaraderie between its characters, an extension of the lack of mutual respect endured by all concerned on the set; Peckinpah diving headfirst over the edge of his story without having yet to fully realize it on paper – much less on film, the mechanics never entirely worked out in his own head. Moving forward without a plan or purpose, Peckinpah shoots what is on his mind at that particular moment, but without first considering where the resulting footage will fit into the film’s continuity as a whole. To some extent, Peckinpah was driven to complete his movie by a desire to prove to Hollywood he wasn’t washed up. The Killer Elite is, in fact, a much more commercial project than, say, Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia; its star power alone returning Peckinpah to his old-time milieu of guts, glory and guns; albeit, without the budget he would have preferred to get the job done. The Chinatown sequence illustrates these cost-cutting measures; shot in mid-day, the streets bizarrely void of any and all foot traffic except for the few necessary vehicles and stunt personnel essential to keep the action moving along. But Peckinpah’s refusal to adhere to either the Marc Norman or Sterling Silliphant screenplay effectively sinks the project.
There is, of course, another aspect to this sad last act in Sam Peckinpah’s life and career as yet to be mentioned; namely, his increasing addiction to cocaine. There is little to doubt Peckinpah’s bitterness toward the system helped to fuel his chronic alcoholism. In hindsight, one can more clearly deduce how this outward self-abuse was merely symptomatic for what had been gnawing at Peckinpah from the inside for a very long time – dating all the way back to the blacklist. Tragically, in the late 1960’s Peckinpah’s self-destructiveness switched from booze to cocaine, misguidedly billed as ‘harmless’ as champagne. Peckinpah’s film-making genius greatly suffered from his increased substance abuse; his inability to provide causal links to his narratives, coupled with his progressively more cantankerous temperament toward cast and crew; his general disgust for the system, and, his contempt for those calling the shots from inside the front offices, while he was toiling in the trenches to will another masterpiece for them from the ashes of his former glories; all of these specters seem to have conspired to deprive Peckinpah of a sense of security – both from within and without. Alas, every true visionary requires this in order to produce his art with confidence.
Peckinpah exhibits little confidence in The Killer Elite; and regrettably, even less of his usual panache for staging gritty action sequences; his métier to keep the audience motivated between the film’s incongruously hacked together and thoroughly mangled story line. When it was released, the critics were quick to pounce; Pauline Kael’s vitriol reserved for Peckinpah and Robert Duvall, the latter heavily criticized for having ‘no personality’. Aside: I have never thought much of Kael’s personality either, except to state she was usually at her best when thinking up thoroughly vindictive diatribes to augment her critiques of movies she would have preferred to see, rather than the ones she actually saw.  

It is therefore begrudgingly that I concede Kael isn’t all too far off the mark in her observations on The Killer Elite. However, Duvall’s perceived 'lack' is not his own doing; Peckinpah losing interest in Duvall’s character after his ominous debut. Duvall remains absent from whole portions of the story and only periodically resurfaces. He’s given small, inopportune moments to shine and makes the least of these – again, mostly because there isn’t much latitude for maneuvering or finding his niche. And Duvall’s career before and since The Killer Elite has, unquestioningly, disproven Kael’s snap assessment about the actor lacking personality as simply a myth.
The Killer Elite opens with a daring title sequence vaguely reminiscent of Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958); a bomb planted in the shadowy recesses of an abandoned warehouse by Mike Locken and George Hansen; private contractors for a secret intelligence agency: ComTeg. Peckinpah sets up the premise of a rogue element operating with ‘untouchable’ status and the complicity of the U.S. government. Locken and Hansen escape moments before the hellish blast with Vorordny (Helmut Dantine); a cryptic East European defector. After delivering their captive to other ComTeg operatives, Locken and Hansen blow off some steam with an orgy. I suppose there’s nothing like a roomful of slightly inebriated, bare-breasted hookers to keep a man’s killer instincts primed – other appendages optional.  Hansen delights in discovering a doctor’s note tucked inside a desk drawer belonging to Rita (Carole Mallory), the tart Locken has taken to bed, vaguely detailing a vaginal infection she has, undoubtedly, passed along to Locken during their flagrante delicto.
A short while later, Hansen and Locken arrive at the safe house to relieve the other operatives protecting Vorodny. Locken elects to take a shower; Hansen waiting until the operatives leave before crudely assassinating the defector with a single gunshot to the head.  Hence, when Locken emerges from the shower he finds Hansen waiting for him with gun in hand. A quick shot to the knee and elbow and it’s over. Perhaps out of friendship, Hansen has allowed his former partner to live – barely; Peckinpah moving into the meticulous, time-consuming and not altogether purposeful montage illustrating Locken’s surgery, therapy and gradual recovery from his life-altering wounds. Locken will never be the man he was. The doctors, in fact, have little hope his leg will ever be able to sustain his natural body weight, much less function as a purposeful appendage for walking, running, climbing stairs, etc.
Locken is indifferent to these reports, also unwilling to accept he will remain a cripple the rest of his life; stirred in his recovery by an empathetic nurse, Amy (Kate Heflin) who eventually moves him into her wharf-side home and restores Locken back to a shadow of his former self. Locken pursues his rehabilitation with some martial arts training therapy; his former superior, Cap Collis encouraging him to forget about ever stepping back into the role as a paid assassin. But even Collis is impressed by Locken’s return to form; enough to reconsider him for a job after a contract is put out on the life of a visiting Japanese diplomat, Yuen Chung and his daughter, Tommie. It seems Hansen is up to his old tricks, having turned rogue and working for the other side assigned to kill Chung. His first attempt, using a high-powered rifle from the rooftop at the airport, is badly bungled; Chung’s bodyguards engaging a sect of killer elite ninjas at the baggage check; their badly beaten bodies tossed onto the conveyor, and, much to the shock and chagrin of airport security.  
Having honed his martial arts skills with the use of a walking stick, Locken now recruits his buddy, Mac and weapons expert, Miller to protect Chung, simultaneously plotting his own revenge against Hansen. The middle act of The Killer Elite is Peckinpah’s weakest attempt to cobble together an internal power struggle within the ComTeg organization between Cap Collis and Lawrence Weybourne. In the meantime, Locken, Mac and Miller barely manage a daring escape from Hansen and his small army of mercenaries, careening in a taxi cab through the uncharacteristically vacant streets of Chinatown with Chung and Tommie in tow. Seemingly having a sixth sense about Sam (Tom Bush), the mechanic who worked on the taxi in the hours preceding their evacuation, Sam now discovers a bomb clinging to the undercarriage of the taxi. Diffusing the device (it inexplicably failed to detonate on its own...killer elite, my fanny!) – Mac hands the bomb to the police officer who pulled them over. Perhaps meant as a moment of humor – or even as a narrative bridge between action sequences - this scene is abysmally beneath Peckinpah; too Keystone Cops and not enough poetic irony to suit the rest of the movie.
We flash forward to the docks where Locken has taken Chung and Tommie; the troop lying in wait for the dawn to confront the Ninja assassins. Regrettably, they are found out by Hansen who, much to Locken's dismay, and only after a rather drawn out scene of exposition (designed to explain away some of the glaring loopholes in the plot) is immediately dispatched by Miller with a single gunshot. At dawn, Locken, Miller, Mac, Chung and Tommie board one of the rusted out hulls of the many former warships moored at Suisun Bay for their penultimate showdown. It all unravels with a perilous sense of ennui and abject predictability; Locken exacting his revenge on Collis: gunshots to his knee and elbow – divine retribution, indeed. In the assault that follow, the Ninjas are wiped out; Chung confronts the lead Ninja assassin and dispatches him with ease; Tommie and Mac do their part to rid the decks of imminent danger, Miller is killed, and Locken walks away from the bloody carnage, presumably, with more missions left to complete.
The Killer Elite is a minor disaster, marginally salvaged by the presence of James Caan; also by Philip Lathrop’s cinematography, taking full advantage of the San Franciscan landscapes. In particular, Jame Caan, despite a lack in any genuine sense of his character’s motivations, nevertheless, lends his formidable presence to this project. It isn’t enough to save the film, but it serves as something of a mild distraction from the incongruities in the plot. Tragically, there is a pervasive futility to the exercise as a whole, Peckinpah’s disinterest woefully transparent. Formerly, the salvation in Peckinpah’s use of violence had always been to illustrate or, at least, draw out some deeper meaning – nee clarity – to complement the story.
The uber-ferocity exhibited throughout The Killer Elite isn’t of this ilk at all; just a lot of noisy squibs going off in conflicting directions while never managing to hit their mark – not even once. Hansen can’t pick off an easy mark on a relatively empty tarmac, and, from the proverbial God spot with a high-powered rifle and a clear shot. Locken clumsily stumbles around as Hansen’s death squad opens fire in mid-day Chinatown, unable to have even one of their bullets pierce the metal of Mac’s taxi or flatten a tire. The screaming Ninjas who appear seemingly out of thin air at the airport baggage check, and later, aboard the ships moored in Suisun Bay, are taken out with a few light whacks of Locken’s wooden cane (it never breaks), enduring some obviously staged pratfalls that leave them anesthetized and flinching. These misfits are the killer elite? Really?!?!   
The Killer Elite arrives on Blu-ray via Twilight Time’s exclusive third party distribution with MGM/Fox Home Video, and in a very fine-looking 1080p transfer. This one appears to mimic the previously issued 'region B' Wild Side Home Video presentation in France. TT’s 'region A' edition looks spectacular; free of age-related debris, and with some impressively saturated colors. Flesh tones look quite natural. Contrast has also been superbly rendered. Even the scenes taking place at night or inside darkly lit corridors are sharp with strong detail emerging throughout, showing off Philip Lathrop’s cinematography to its best advantage.  The Wild Side Blu-ray contained theatrical and extended cuts of the movie. Twilight Time gives us the extended cut only, plus the home video debut of Noon Wine (1966); Peckinpah’s foray into television with a marginal western drama co-starring Jason Robarts and Olivia DeHavilland.
But back to The Killer Elite transfer for just a moment. The audio has been remastered in 1.0 DTS and, apart from its obvious mono limitations, is clean, clear and accurately reproduced.  Noon Wine is a bit of a disappointment. It ought to have been sourced from film, but instead looks as though it was minted from a tape transfer. We get color bleeding, haloing and other anomalies, making for a pretty uneventful and occasionally horrendous presentation.  TT amplifies the extras with a fantastic audio commentary from historians Paul Seydor and Garner Simmons, who are accompanied in their reminiscences by TT’s own Nick Redman. This trio also provides some insightful backstory on another commentary track for Noon Wine. Both are a great listen, in fact, and much better than either movie deserves. We also get the truncated ‘Passion and Poetry’ making of, plus a theatrical trailer and TV spots. None of these extras are in hi-def.  Bottom line: if you are a fan of this movie, TT’s Blu-ray is definitely a fantastic upgrade from MGM’s old Frisbee of a DVD. It wasn’t even anamorphic! Bottom line: The Killer Elite isn’t vintage Sam Peckinpah, but the transfer quality is up there with the best.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)

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