Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Killer Eilte

*Part 5 in a series of reviews on random films playing for 2 euros in Brussels

The opening text for Sam Peckinpah's uneven take on a 70s style action pic hints at both the seriousness and playfulness intended. The first line of text tells us that the film is based on a fictional organization called Comteg that is used by the C.I.A. for matters that are too delicate for direct government involvement. Oh, cool, maybe like Blackwater, or something to do with rendition. This could be interesting and certainly relevant. The second line (paraphrase): "This film does not insinuate that the C.I.A. uses such organizations because that, of course, would be preposterous." Okay, so they're going to have some fun too.

Let's start with the fun. Both James Caan and Robert Duvall appear to be having a blast here as onetime friends, now enemies, Mike Locken and George Hansen, employees for Comteg charged with protecting a Russian defector. After an opening job set against some groovy 70s music, Hansen quickly turns bad, killing the Russian (presumably for money) and shooting Locken in the knee and shoulder. Only twenty minutes into the movie, and the narrative is laid out; the rest of the movie will feature these two highly trained soldiers against one another in a battle of wits.

But first...well, but first we have to see a good twenty to thirty minutes of Locken's recovery as Caan walks up stairs, falls over at restaurants, and tries to work his way back into shape. His employers at Comteg tell him to forget about coming back, that maybe he can have an office and a pension, but that his fighting day are over. Locken, of course, does not buy this and so we get to see him work with various exoticized ethnic figures in San Francisco to get him back into shape. This whole section is emotionally draining as you just know there is supposed to be some excitement and violence coming up, but instead are watching Caan cry with the nurse and hobble around on crutches. I think Peckinpah probably liked lingering over recovery from violence as much as lingering over the violence itself, but enough.

Things pick up when we hear that Hansen is back in the game, operating as an assassin to kill a visiting Chinese politician Yuen Chung (played by Mr. All-Around everything Asian Mako). In one of the cooler sequences of the film, Peckinpah alternates between a liaison from the C.I.A. explaining a failed hit on Yuen at the airport and scenes from the fight itself. The latter scenes are Kung-Fu light, but they are done in silence and (of course) in slow motion while we hear the C.I.A. guy talk about it. Immediately Comteg realizes that Locken is the man for the job, and second in command Cap Collins is sent to find the rehabbing Locken.

After the necessary, and always fun, process of putting the team together - the insane Jerome Miller (Bo Hopkins) and the retired Mac (an awesome Burt Young) - Locken sets out to find Yuen before Hansen does. From this point on, the movie is pretty much non-stop action, as all sorts of improbable and gratuitous gunplay breaks out across the Bay Area (yes, there is at least one scene of a car flying over one of the city's hilltops). Nothing really interesting to see here, as I've seen better from the 70s, or even the A-Team, but it is enjoyable, specifically Mac's constant chatter, Miller's desire to shoot just about anything, and the overall light touch.

Unfortunately, interspersed among the action is the kind of ham-handed and pat speechifying about power and responsibility that would put Batman to shame. As the voice of reason, Mac keeps asking Locken why he is representing his evil bosses, and it becomes increasingly clear that Comteg was not altogether forthcoming about its continued relationship with Hansen. The overall tone of the movie certainly doesn't justify it as a serious meditation on power, and I'm not sure if this was all Peckinpah was allowed to get into a studio picture, or if this was all he had. I'd guess the former, but either way, it's a bore.

As the two antagonists get closer, the picture drops off in action and the talking returns to the point that you are ready for things to wrap up already. By the time Yuen decides that he must battle his assassins directly (in one of the worst sword fights ever put to screen), the movie has lost even the ability to entertain. Really, other than Burt Young, I could have found more entertainment and political commentary in two episodes with B.A, Hannibal, and the gang.


Sean said...

No Warren Oates, eh? Too bad. Just yesterday I was watching the second half of The Osterman Weekend, his last movie. You have Rutger Hauer, John Hurt, Craig T. Nelson (sporting one hell of a power stache) and a Denis Hopper looking like he was caught in between binges -- this alone makes it watchable, but it's entirely less than engaging and fairly laughable. By the looks of it I think The Killer Elite marks the beginning of the end for Sam. He didn't write it and didn't get to direct anything he wrote after it... I know there's good books written on Peckinpah and about how he'd butted heads with too many studios and couldn't get the money to make the movies he wanted after a certain point in the late 70s and early 80s -- a sad story at the end. Too bad this is the Peckinpah you had to sit through. I'm starting to think this lineup isn't so random. I think you're getting a series of films pinpointing the fall from grace of once great directors.

Padraic said...

It does feel like that, no?

But Wild at Heart, and earlier screenings I saw of Aguirre and John Ford's My Darling Clementine make me think they are just showing slightly lesser-known films by major directors.

No Frankenstein, but the Invisible Man. No La Grande Bouffe, but Il Futuro e donna. No Metropolis, but Ministry of Fear.

But of course, Psycho is playing tomorrow night, so that messes up that theory.

I've seen enough other Peckinpah to not let this one get me down. Also, I've been doing some reading on the film and it's been suggested that the movie is so uneven (that word comes up in almost every review) because half the time Peckinpah is taking it seriously, and half the time he's being subversive.

The final fight scene just has to be a big 'f you' to the studio - it's the only thing that makes sense. If he had gone all the way, seemingly making an action pic, but with disinterested characters, it could have been a classic meta type film, but unfortunately there are just way to many earnest moments that kill it.

As it is, it's pretty fascinating to think about in retrospect (I don't think I really captured how odd some of the staging is), but just not fun to watch. The kind of movie you would want to talk about for hours, but would never recommend.