Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Killer Elite

"Lay me seven to five, I’ll take the little guy."

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 The drug superseded alcohol as his addiction of choice.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.

Throughout the montage, the credits appear in notably small lettering. Even on the big screen it must have had audiences squinting; on DVD it’s barely legible. It’s as if Peckinpah is seeking to spare the blushes of everyone involved in the making of such a soulless and formulaic movie. And that goes doubly for Peckinpah himself. Apart from having his name removed entirely, it’s hard to see how he could have distanced himself any further. Consider his "directed by" credit:

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.

Caan and Burt Young (playing Locken’s wheelman) share as many embarrassed glances as they do facetious asides. Arthur Hill and Gig Young mumble their way through supposedly intense scenes as if they’re just killing time waiting for the pubs to open (which, in all likelihood, their director probably was). Duvall punctures an early scene by braying with manic laughter, as if he’d set eyes on the script for the first time. The kung-fu, ninja and swordplay scenes are staged almost comedically. The gunplay and slo-mo are incorporated so deliberately and inelegantly you’d think you were watching a send-up of a Peckinpah movie that just happened to be directed by Peckinpah himself. Then there’s the dialogue. Denied rewrite duties on the script, Peckinpah encouraged his cast to ad-lib sarcastic dialogue which accounts for James Caan and Burt Young’s tension-deflating banter during the climatic swordfight between Chung and Toku ("lay me seven to five," Caan grunts as the oriental antagonists lock swords, "I’ll take the little guy").

If this makes ‘The Killer Elite’ sound like it’s as funny as canister of laughing gas, to a certain degree it is. The very fact that Peckinpah elected to take the piss out of the material is what makes ‘The Killer Elite’ highly watchable. The action scenes, though bordering on parodic, are effective. Excellent use is made of locations, particularly Locken’s recruitment of Miller (Bo Hopkins) while the latter is clay pigeon shooting over the Golden Gate Bridge! Likewise, the climatic scene at a maritime "graveyard" for decomissioned naval vessels is atmospheric and memorable. Philip Lathrop’s cinematography makes good use of ’Scope and his compositions are good. The film as a whole is never less than entertaining.

And yet, for me, ‘The Killer Elite’ is a dispiriting. It heralds the last decade of Peckinpah’s life as a filmmaker - a decade in which he made, with the exception of ‘Cross of Iron’, the least interesting, least personal and most generic films of his career. It offers precious few of the Peckinpah Irregulars in keynote roles (Bo Hopkins returns from ‘The Wild Bunch’ and ‘The Getaway’ and Gig Young from ‘Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia’ and that’s your lot. It links into none of the themes and concerns that define him as at artist (even ‘Convoy’ can be viewed as a contemporary western, truckers replacing cowboys, while there’s a small case to be made for ‘The Osterman Weekend’ as a critique on the intrusive/destructive influence of technology and the small screen as the bastardisation of cinema). True, it’s not the sprawling, incoherent, narratively pointless mess that ‘Convoy’ is. At the very least, it tells a story - albeit an overplotted and not particularly engaging one. But that’s not the point. The point is that ‘The Killer Elite’ was the first time Sam Peckinpah directed a film and didn’t give a shit. That’s what’s so depressing.

*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.

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