“There’s not one power system that really cares about its civilians!”
This was written as a contribution to Agitation of the Mind’s Peckinpah Month blogathon! go check it out.
James Caan. Robert Duvall. Burt Young. Mako. Sam Peckinpah. Sounds like fun, don’t it? Well it is. This lesser known Peckinpah film was made during the nadir of his relationship with Hollywood, when no producer would give him a dime; eventually Mike Medavoy of United Artists assigned him this film because he believed in Sam’s talents. Made after his classic nihilist tale Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, the same cynicism pervades this film, but the story isn’t Peckinpah’s, and it’s often treated as a joke.
James Caan and Robert Duvall had just finished The Godfather, Part II and were probably looking for lighter fare; Caan would also make Freebie and the Bean (full review) this year, and he still has some of that carefree attitude that made that film a classic. The story opens with them playing Mike Locken (Caan) and Gerry Hansen (Duvall), two off the record operators for a shadowy government agency, taked with rescuing a foreign national from assassination. They blow up the building as they leave, tearing off in a land yacht, cracking sarcastic jokes all the while. After the job, they go to a party and Locken gets laid; later Hansen tells him he found a doctor’s note in the gal’s room saying she’s got VD, and shows him the paper.
The plot hinges on a betrayal that makes little sense, but that is the point- that the government’s shifting and mercurial alliances during the Cold War were cynical in the extreme and put civilian life at a lower priority than maintaining the current power structure. Not long after fooling Locken into thinking he’s got the clap, Hansen pulls a double cross and shoots their foreign national in the head, and Locken in the knee and elbow. He slips away after leaving his ex-partner with this deliciously dark goodbye: “You just retired, Mike. Enjoy it.”
While the film doesn’t delve too deeply into why they do this job, as Frankenheimer’s Ronin did, Peckinpah does inject a bit of absurdity later on. He said he prepared for it by watching Bruce Lee movies, which makes a bit of sense, as Mike recovers from his crippling injuries using tai chi and kung fu, and his final job will be escorting Mako and his daughter to a ship bound for China. I was quite interested in watching Locken’s training, because he’s saddled with a cane and uses it to fight. Beyond the usual wizened, cane-wielding master in kung fu films, cane fighting is a serious martial art- check out Cane Masters sometime- but Sam doesn’t take it very seriously. The slow-motion fighting recalls his later film The Osterman Weekend, which seemed to fetishize it and mock it at the same time.
Needless to say, Mike Locken wants revenge. After proving that he’s still dangerous with a metal arm brace- which he learns to bash heads with- and a cane, his old boss Weyburn recruits him for another job, in Chinatown. Escort Yuen Chung (Mako) and his daughter to a Naval transport before ninjas and assassins can take them out. Gig Young plays the boss, and has that WASPy sense of old family cool befitting a paranoid Cold War thriller. This was done to much better effect in Three Days of the Condor, but this one’s got more action; it’s from the Max Von Sydow perspective. Mike puts together a team of old pals, including Miller the Sniper (Bo Hopkins) who we meet skeet shooting by the Golden Gate bridge; and Mac, the car expert, played by Burt Young as a bit of a schlub who’s got it when it counts.
Mac hooks them up with a bulletproof taxicab. “Some union guy put it all together, bulletproof glass, and then they shot him in bed. I got it from his widow.” Oh, the irony. The pickup in Chinatown of course leads to a shootout, that Hansen is behind- who else? The story is predictable, but at least the performances and Peckinpah’s casual attitude toward the material make it entertaining. The bullets fly, and while nothing recalls the frenetic mayhem of The Wild Bunch, we get a sense of the cheapness of civilian life as gunfire riddles the city streets with abandon. This is later punctuated after Mac manages a reliable San Francisco car chase and ditches the cops, only to find a bomb wired under the car. The tension builds as a motorcycle cop senses something awry, but it’s played for laughs; the inconvenience of a traffic stop while the timer ticks away. Mac ends up handing the bomb to the cop, and they tell him to throw it in the harbor.
Ebert missed the payoff in his lukewarm review, as it’s the opposite of the ’66 Batman “some days you just can’t rid of a bomb” gag; they drive off to the shipyard, and as they get out of the car, a distant explosion is heard. I liken this to another hilarious wink Peckinpah gives in Convoy, when the trucks are circling by the flag-draped coffin of their compatriot. That’s almost too ridiculous to take, but it’s the kind of pompous gesture the establishment would demand to assuage the public’s ire. But the bomb made me wonder, was Sam just trying to be funny by giving the hated ’70s icon of the motorcycle cop- mocked so well in Harold & Maude– comeuppance, or was he having the callous “elite” kill off an innocent casually to underline the clumsy yet memorable line of Mac’s that leads this post:
Mac: Damn it, Mike! You’re so busy doing their dirty work, you can’t tell who the bad guys are!
Mike Locken: Don’t worry! I know who the bad guys are: anybody who tries to hurt me!
Mac: They’re all tryin’ to hurt you Mike! All the goddam power systems! All the wheelers and dealers at the top with their gin and fizzes! They need guys like you to do their bloodletting, while they’re busy making speeches about freedom and progress! They’re all full of bullshit! There’s not one power system that really cares about its civilians!
That seems to be the kind of cynicism Sam would like; the modern world having no place for honor. Locken is robbed of his revenge by expediency, in a Mexican standoff that in most films would have ended with his fast-draw besting his rival’s. The final battle aboard a decommissioned battleship between gunmen and ninjas might have had the melodrama of The Last Samurai, but no one takes it seriously; it may work on paper, but in broad daylight it ends the only way it should, with cloaked swordsmen cut down like wheat before the scythe. When Mako faces his challenger, Locken and Mac want to “just shoot the guy,” but he demands the ceremonial battle. Caan ad-libs with snarky comments, but is it because he knows his own concept of honor is a fraud? The ending recalls a buddy picture like Freebie, and The Killer Elite is too vague and unfocused to make any grand or weary statements, but is still enjoyable enough to watch.