In what was starting to become a pattern, Peckinpah responded to the box office failure of a small, personal picture (‘Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia’) by latching onto a commercial assignment. He had conjured massive returns and a storming comeback for Steve McQueen with ‘The Getaway’ after ‘Junior Bonner’ flopped, and still made what was obviously a Peckinpah film. ‘The Killer Elite’ was different beast to ‘The Getaway’, though.
Adapted by Marc Norman and Sterling Silliphant from Robert Rostand’s novel ‘Monkey in the Middle’ (thank God they changed the title!), this overplotted tale of CIA shenanigans and internal power struggles had a high profile cast – headlined by James Caan and Robert Duvall – and box office potential written all over it. Unfortunately, nothing in the material interested Peckinpah and his approach to the project was the antithesis of his dedicated professionalism on ‘The Getaway’. It didn’t help that Peckinpah developed a cocaine habit on set. The drug superseded alcohol as his addiction of choice.
‘The Killer Elite’ enjoyed a successful opening weekend before audience interest dropped off in the wake appalling reviews. Nonetheless, it did enough business that Peckinpah was offered two big-budget studio productions, both anticipated to be blockbusters: ‘Superman’ (which was) and the Dino de Laurentis produced ‘King Kong’ remake (which wasn’t). Peckinpah passed on both of them to make ‘Cross of Iron’.
ComTeg is a shadowy covert-ops outfit, that may or may not be CIA-approved, run by Arthur Hill (Cap Collis) and Lawrence Weyburn (Gig Young). Agents Mike Locken (James Caan) and George Hansen (Robert Duvall) are assigned to babysit Russian diplomat Vorodny (Helmut Dantine) at a remote safehouse. It’s here that Hansen goes renegade, killing Vorodny and disabling Locken by shooting him in the leg. Hansen then goes underground. Locken’s recovery is slow and painful. ComTeg earmark him for a desk job, which adds insult to his quite literal injuries. Then Weyburn, apparently operating independently of Collis, offers Locken a field assignment protecting Yuen Chung (Mako), a Japanese statesman who is openly opposed to San Francisco based Triad boss Negato Toku, with the caveat that the operation could well bring him back into conflict with Hansen. Weyburn encourages Locken to put his own team together. Eager for a chance to settle the score with Hansen, Locken agrees. But is he being manipulated? Is there a bigger picture here than the Chung/Toku and Locken/Hansen antagonism?
I’ve just wasted five minutes and 180 words on the above synopsis. If Peckinpah’s nakedly evident contempt for ‘The Killer Elite’ – which almost seems to permeate the very celluloid – is anything to go by, he had even less time for it. The opening credits sequence is a case in point. Against an uncontextualised soundtrack of children singing (the concept of children as witnesses to the very worst the adult world has to offer is the only signature Peckinpah trope that makes an appearance in ‘The Killer Elite’), Peckinpah assembles a montage so risibly cliched in its imagery and po-faced in execution that in can only be an exercise in parody. The camerawork is shadowy, the editing urgent, the children's voices swiftly replaced by an overly melodramatic score. A masonry drill burrows into brickwork, fetching up plaster and brick dust. Plastic explosive is tamped into the hole. A cable drum spools detonating cord. Sticks of dynamite are affixed to some pipework. Someone sets a timer. Someone else pours gasoline over a concrete floor. Replacing Jerry Fielding's score with the ‘Pink Panther’ theme is all it would take to make the joke explicit rather than implicit.
Yep, that’s right. The words "directed by", all on their ownsome, then seven cuts - seven fucking cuts - then his name, again on its ownsome, as if Peckinpah were saying "Who? Me? Direct this?"* And before you there’s any risk of the cinema-goers of 1975 putting two and two together and realising that, yes, actually this was directed by the man who made ‘The Wild Bunch’, he cuts from those tiny letters lost on a dark screen to a completely gratuitous display of pyrotechnics (why do Locken and co. blow up the building exactly? fucked if I know). Is he trying to burn away his association with the film? Quite probably. For most of the remainder of the running time he simply rubbishes the very movie he’s calling the shots on. The astounding thing is that everyone else seems to be in on it.
*I’ve wracked my brains, conferred with other cineastes and interrogated the internet and I can’t come up with any other film where the director cuts himself loose from his own credit.