The Killer Elite

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The Killer Elite
Killer elite movie poster.jpg
Directed bySam Peckinpah
Produced byMartin Baum
Arthur Lewis
Screenplay byMarc Norman
Stirling Silliphant
Based onMonkey in the Middle
by Robert Syd Hopkins
(as Robert Rostand)
Music byJerry Fielding
CinematographyPhilip Lathrop
Edited byTony de Zarraga
Monte Hellman
Exeter Associates
Persky-Bright Productions
Arthur Lewis Productions
Baum/Dantine Productions
Distributed byUnited Artists
Release date
  • December 17, 1975 (1975-12-17) (New York)[1]
Running time
122 minutes
CountryUnited States

The Killer Elite is a 1975 American action thriller film starring James Caan and Robert Duvall and directed by Sam Peckinpah.

The screenplay was written by Marc Norman and Stirling Silliphant adapted from the Robert Syd Hopkins novel, Monkey in the Middle; the novel was written under Hopkins' pseudonym of Robert Rostand. The film represents the last collaboration between Peckinpah and soundtrack composer Jerry Fielding.


Mike Locken (James Caan) and George Hansen (Robert Duvall) are best friends and private contractors for a private intelligence agency, Communications Integrity or ComTeg, which handles covert assignments for the CIA. At the beginning of the film, Locken and Hansen are helping an East European defector, Vorodny (Helmut Dantine), escape. After delivering the defector to other ComTeg operatives, Locken and Hansen throw a wild party to relax; the next day, they go to a ComTeg safehouse to relieve other agents who have been guarding Vorodny, the defector they previously helped escape.

Hansen, having been bought out by an unknown rival group, assassinates Vorodny, and then critically wounds Locken in the knee and elbow, telling Locken that he has "just been retired".

Told that he will be a cripple for life and that his career is apparently at an end, Locken undergoes a long period of rehabilitation when he is subsequently approached with another assignment from his ComTeg contact man, Cap Collis (Arthur Hill), it requires him to protect an Asian client, Yuen Chung. It also gives him the opportunity to seek revenge against Hansen, who is part of the team out to assassinate the client.

Locken, having become well versed in the martial arts using his cane during his rehabilitation, recruits a couple of former ComTeg associates, Mac (Burt Young), a wheelman and a former friend of Locken's, and Miller (Bo Hopkins), a weapons expert, to help him. However, the deal turns out to be an elaborate set-up: part of an internal power struggle between rival ComTeg directors; the aforementioned Cap Collis and his superior, Lawrence Weybourne (Gig Young).

In a subsequent assassination attempt on Chung, Hansen gets the drop on Locken, but is shot and killed by Miller. Locken rebukes Miller for killing Hansen, he later forgives him. A final showdown between the Asian rivals takes place aboard a naval vessel on the Reserve Fleet in Suisun Bay, California with Locken and Mac involved in the fray and confronting Collis one last time.



Richard Eder of The New York Times wrote, "Sam Peckinpah knows how to make movies but perhaps he has forgotten why. At least that is the feeling given by this bag of mixed, often damp fireworks about the alienation of people who do dirty tricks for the Central Intelligence Agency and discover that the tricks as well as the dirt are on them."[2] Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film 2.5 stars out of 4 and opened his review by stating, "Sam Peckinpah's 'The Killer Elite' is directed and acted with a certain nice style, but it puts us through so many convolutions of the plot that finally we just don't care. After 'Three Days of the Condor' and all the other variations on the CIA betrayal theme, we've been here before."[3] Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune awarded the same 2.5-star grade and criticized the "moralizing dialog" as well as "half-hearted martial arts battles" that "come off as a sop to the young kung-fu movie audience."[4] Arthur D. Murphy of Variety noted it as "an okay Sam Peckinpah actioner ... Cast performs admirable against the programmer demands of the story."[5] Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times wrote that the film "wastes the formidable talents of director Sam Peckinpah and James Caan, who heads a first-rate cast, on a trite and murky formula thriller plot usually relegated to the less ambitious TV movies."[6] The Washington Post praised the film as "a disarmingly funny and sympathetic action-suspense melodrama" and noted, "Neither the ads nor the opening wave of reviews have given the picture much credit for humor, which happens to be its strongest attribute."[7] Pauline Kael of The New Yorker saw in the protagonist's rehabilitation "an almost childishly transparent disguise for Peckinpah's own determination to show Hollywood that he's not dead yet ... Amazingly, Peckinpah does rehabilitate himself; his technique here is dazzling." Peckinpah's use of violence in the fim, Kael continued, "isn't gory and yet it's more daring than ever. He has never before made the violence itself so surreally, fluidly abstract; several sequences are edited with a magical speed—a new refinement."[8] Tom Milne of The Monthly Film Bulletin wrote, "Craftily marrying the martial arts fad to the anti-CIA craze to produce a sort of Enter the Dragon meets Three Days of the Condor, the script is of course a mixture of opportunism and joke—as Peckinpah freely ackowledges with a deliriously absurd (yet splendid) final holocaust in which hordes of sword-carrying Japanese ambush, with highly predictable results, Americans armed to the teeth with machine-guns."[9]

Japanese film director Shinji Aoyama listed The Killer Elite as one of the Greatest Films of All Time in 2012, he said, "No other movie has taught me as much about human dignity as The Killer Elite."[10]

In 1977 James Caan said he only did the film because his advisers told him to work with Sam Peckinpah, and he rated it a zero on a scale to ten.[11]

The film currently holds a score of 50% on Rotten Tomatoes based on 12 reviews.[12]

DVD and Blu-ray[edit]

The Killer Elite was released to DVD by MGM on April 1, 2003, on a French Blu-ray by Wild Side (under license from MGM) in 2013, and in 2014 as a limited edition (of 3000) Blu-ray from Twilight Time in the US with the rare 1966 TV adaptation of Noon Wine, directed by Peckinpah for ABC-TV's Studio 67 as an extra; this marked the first time "Noon Wine" had ever been released on home video. This release also features an isolated soundtrack and an excerpt from the Peckinpah film biography Passion and Poetry.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "The Killer Elite". AFI Catalog of Feature Films. American Film Institute. Retrieved May 8, 2019.
  2. ^ Eder, Richard (December 18, 1975). "'Killer Elite,' or Copping Out of the Universal Sell-Out". The New York Times. 62.
  3. ^ Ebert, Roger. "The Killer Elite". Retrieved May 8, 2019.
  4. ^ Siskel, Gene (December 23, 1975). "'Killer Elite': Murder is such a nasty business". Chicago Tribune. Section 2, p. 5.
  5. ^ Murphy, Arthur D. (December 24, 1975). Variety. 14.
  6. ^ Thomas, Kevin (December 18, 1975). "Talent Wasted in 'Killer Elite'". Los Angeles Times. Part IV, p. 32.
  7. ^ "Upbeat Peckinpah". The Washington Post. December 25, 1975. H1.
  8. ^ Kael, Pauline (January 12, 1976). "The Current Cinema". The New Yorker. 73.
  9. ^ Milne, Tom (March 1976). "The Killer Elite". The Monthly Film Bulletin. 43 (506): 55.
  10. ^ Aoyama, Shinji (2012). "The Greatest Films Poll". Sight & Sound. Italic or bold markup not allowed in: |publisher= (help)
  11. ^ James Caan's career hitting tough times Siskel, Gene. Chicago Tribune (1963-Current file) [Chicago, Ill] 27 Nov 1977: e6.
  12. ^ "The Killer Elite". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved August 12, 2019.

External links[edit]