The Killer Elite

“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.

Lonesome Dove

I made the mistake of avoiding this King of epic mini-series for many years. The title made me think romance, and I didn’t think a primetime TV mini-series could be that good. I also didn’t know how great a writer Larry McMurtry is. Lonesome Dove is every bit as worthy as the much-lauded Band of Brothers, and perhaps even paved the way for such violent epics of great scope. Originally written as a screenplay for John Wayne and Peter Bogdanovich by McMurtry, the Duke bowed out and the writer bought his script back, wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, and then Hollywood wanted it again. But instead of cutting it down to movie length, it was given the full spread of over 6 hours of primetime television- 8 hours with commercials. And it’s worth every minute.
American Movie Classics HD played it last weekend, restored to widescreen glory. In the age of “Deadwood” I was concerned that it would feel sanitized, and while it is safe for TV, it’s bloody and bawdy, befitting the Western mythos from which our country developed. The story revolves around two old retired Texas Rangers, the likeable, fun-loving and philosphical Augustus “Gus” McCrae (Robert Duvall), and his quiet old friend Woodrow Call (Tommy Lee Jones). They’ve got a ranch on the border with Mexico, but Call has plans for cattle in Montana. The story takes its time setting up, letting us get acquainted with the characters. There are a lot of them, but Gus is the center.
We also meet Sheriff July Johnson (Chris Cooper) who’s henpecked by his sister-in-law into hunting down ex-Ranger Jake Spoon (Robert Urich), who killed his brother in an accident. Now Jake is riding with Call and McCrae, as they undertake one of the first big cattle drives across the now cinematically famous Red River. Their paths will cross many times. Jake falls in with the rather gorgeous town whore Lorena (Diane Lane) and she ends up on the drive with them. But Gus has a liking for her too; he knows Jake isn’t true and Gus has a habit of stealing women away from him. Danny Glover plays Joshua Deets, a driver and excellent tracker; Newt (Ricky Schroeder) is Call’s bastard son, but he doesn’t recognize him.

Simpletons are a staple of TV mini-series like “The Stand” and we get two of them here! Roscoe Brown is July’s dimwit deputy, and he’s played to endearing perfection by Barry Corbin. Best known to me as the General in Wargames who says “I’d piss on a spark plug if I thought it would do any good!” he was also in No Country for Old Men. He’s barely recognizable here and really gets into the part. As soon as his story arc ends we get Big Zwey, a more violent type who’s moon-eyed for July’s wandering wife Elmira. He smashes Steve Buscemi’s face in against a wagon wheel. Steve’s quite good in this, and it’s the first Western I’d seen him in.
The acting is some of the best you’ll see from these actors. Robert Urich of “Spenser” and The Ice Pirates, is a wonder as Jake Spoon, a flawed man who is a mere shade of a lawman when faced with Gus and McCrae. Ricky Schroeder . We’ve come to expect great things from Chris Cooper, Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Duvall and they certainly deliver here. Jones plays the driven, ambitious tragic figure to a tee, while Duvall is the more human of the two. Both are capable of heroism, but Duvall’s McCrae is the one we’d want to have a drink with. He hunts down Blue Duck when he kidnaps Lorena; he smashes a disrespectful bartender’s face in when he talks down to them. Call is the man who does the impossible, at great detriment to his relationships around him; he’s larger than life, but McCrae is the one who lives it. His motto translates to “a grape is changed by living with other grapes.” He improves the vintage of those around him, while Call turns them bitter with neglect.
Diane Lane has never stood out to me, but perhaps that is her strength. She becomes the role, and doesn’t impose her personality on it. Her Lorena is effortlessly desirable, and Gus is the only one who sees her as a person. The other strong female role is Anjelica Huston’s Clara Allen, Gus’s old unrequited love, a strong woman who ends up delivering Elmira’s baby as she seeks her own old love.
Tommy Lee Jones is well known for evoking great emotion with a stone face and cold stare, but here he’s quite the physical actor on horseback. If he was any more comfortable riding, he’d be a centaur. He performed all his own stunts, even breaking a stallion; the actor has long bred horses and it makes him a perfect choice here. When two hands fight, he breaks it up by riding up within an inch of them, as naturally as if he’d turned around and grabbed them by the ears. When Newt is being whipped by an Army quartermaster who wants to requisition one of their horses, Tommy barrels his own steed into the man’s and unhorses him, one hell of a stunt. This also shows Call’s unspoken love for his son, as he nearly beats the man to death with a branding iron.

This is an epic mini-series, and the story is one you should watch yourself. Two of our best living Western actors, Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Duvall, should be all you need to know. This lives up to its stellar reputation, and stands by Band of Brothers as one of the best mini-series ever made. It is available on widescreen DVD and Blu-Ray. The HD presentation on AMC was stunning and the locations make the barrens of Texas and the wilds between it and Montana come alive. This is one of those stories that makes me think, “why the hell didn’t I watch this sooner?”

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The Arnold Schwarzenegger Project: The 6th Day

This is Arnie’s take on the near future, it’s not quite as amusing as Demolition Man though. Point for Sly, sadly enough. This really gives End of Days a run for its money.
Arnold has always had amusingly conservative family lives in his movies, but few of them work; John Matrix was believable when he said “He should be called Girl George!” and in True Lies, Cameron wisely makes his daughter an important part of the story. Here, he’s a lone Luddite standout in an advanced future, who has a classic ’54 Cadillac in his garage while everyone else lets their OnStar GM vehicles drive themselves. Unlike Minority Report, and even Freejack, where the cars look futuristic, they just use late-model cars. It doesn’t help, in a movie where we just saw remote-control gyrojets flying through the mountains. It’s not quite a believable future. Total Recall and Demolition Man do it better.
Roger Spottiswoode directs, the guy who gave us Turner & Hooch, Stop or My Mom Will Shoot, and the Bond flick Tomorrow Never Dies, which was only memorable because Michelle Yeoh was in it. This time he decides the tone should be somewhere between Enemy of the State and Cherry 2000, both infinitely more entertaining and original films.

Sometime after Conan, he got his teeth done.

Robert Duvall plays Dr. Weir, the pioneer of cloning who saved the world by somehow cloning the fish population, and CEO Drucker is the guy who saved our children from crying by creating RePets, cloned pets so they never know their puppy died! They run a quasi-criminal empire that is secretly cloning humans, which is against the law ever since the Supreme Court ordered the first human clone destroyed. They can feed your memories back with a fresh brain, fastforwarding your memories through screens in front of your pupils, but while they play it partially for laughs, it was done so much better years later in The Venture Bros. animated series. They bring back dead henchmen in this one too, but it isn’t as funny as it should be.
Arnold is his usual super-killer self, but as the entrepreneur of an Extreeeeeme Skiing Tour Guide service, there’s no reason for his combat skills. In Total Recall he’s a rogue agent (or it’s all the Ultimate Ego Trip) and in most other roles he’s some sort of cop or ex-military; here he’s just Arnold, I mean, Adam Gibson, and brings us out of willful suspension of disbelief even further. I just assume since he’s a pilot, he’s ex-chair force. Anyway, the plot is he falls asleep on a cab ride to his birthday party and when he wakes up… he’s just not right. When he makes it home, he sees himself getting served birthday cake through the window, and he knows somethin’ ain’t right Lucy. Weird goofy henchmen (the best being Terry Crews) try to kill him in an uninspired car chase with his ’54 Cadillac.

In ze future, Manic Panic hair dye is expensive

After the first hour when the laser guns start flying like mad, things get a little easier to take. The problem is it has no consistent tone. There’s a henchman named “Wiley” who is repeatedly killed due to incompetence, a virtual sexpot for Mike Rapaport, creepy discolored SimPal toys reminiscent of that “My Buddy” doll from the ’80s; but it also crams in a smary subplot with Dr. Weir’s wife being a clone of a clone who keeps dying of congenital diseases, and “just wants to die.” Religious nuts picket Weir’s institute, when no one’s supposed to know he clones people; but sports stars on TV with obviously broken necks show up the next day back in the game. If only this had the charm of The Running Man!

send in ze clone!

In this intolerably long movie, the most anticipated part is when Arnie meets Clonie and they team up to beat the evil CEO who wants his family dead for some reason. Sadly, he’s a pretty boring character in this- he’s no John Matrix or even a Ben Richards- so doubling him only makes the movie less tolerable. It manages to crib here and there from Blade Runner‘s replicants, and Spottiswoode even re-uses the lamest part of Tomorrow Never Dies, attacking people with the helicopter rotors. Arnie manages to wipe out the evil corporation at the end because in 2015, CEOs still haven’t learned the value of offsite backup storage solutions. To quote Professor Frink: mm-hey.

Rating: You should clone yourself while you are still alive. So you can go fuck yourself!

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All the entries in The Arnold Project