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The Killer Elite


‘…Perhaps this isn’t Peckinpah’s best, but The Killer Elite’s conspiracy theories still give it the hard edge that a crime thriller requires…’

Sam Peckinpah’s career peaked with The Wild Bunch; while his later films certainly display flashes of genius, his greatest work was probably behind him in the late 1960’s. By 1975, a slew of alcohol and drugs were catching up with him, and the opportunity to direct a studio film like The Killer Elite came with conditions.

So those expecting an over-the-top bloody Peckinpah spectacle will be disappointed, but there’s still plenty meat on the bones. The late James Caan models a terrific wardrobe of turtle-neck sweaters and suede jackets as Mike, a CIA operative who is double-crossed by his partner George (Robert Duvall). George shoots Mike in the knee, retiring his friend, but Mike goes through a long and painful rehabilitation process and eventually puts together a team to seek revenge.

The same year as the thematically similar French Connection II, The Killer Elite switches focus to cover the long route back that a driven individual might take; Caan does as well as ever with the physicality, and Peckinpah’s downbeat word-view is a good fit for the bigger-picture plotline about CIA departmental rivalry.

The Killer Elite has never looked better than in Amazon’s spanking fresh print on streaming; the finale on the deck of the Reserve Fleet in California is crisp and clear even when the constant switching of allegiances isn’t. Perhaps this isn’t Peckinpah’s very best, but The Killer Elite’s conspiracy theories still give it the hard edge that a crime thriller requires.


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  1. This is possibly my least favourite Peckinpah film. David Weddle argues that it was made by Peckinpah out of desperation because no other studio would offer him a job at the time. It was not his finest hour as he had no real investment in the script and he and much of the cast were using cocaine heavily during the shoot. I remember seeing it in the cinema and just being disappointed.

    • Yup, as a Peckinpah fan, I couldn’t find much evidence of his style here, although the finale is well enough done. I guess Peckinpah got what he wanted out of this, in that he went on to Cross of iron after this, but while I can see tonnes of merit in late work like Osterman Weekend, this is a fairly perfunctory action thriller with little of his trademarks.

    • In the mid 70’s, Duvall often surprised audiences by having hair or not, he built his reputation on it…

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