The Killer Elite

The Killer Elite is a 1975 American action thriller film starring James Caan and Robert Duvall and directed by Sam Peckinpah.[3]

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
Distributed byUnited Artists
Release date
  • December 17, 1975 (1975-12-17) (New York)
Running time
122 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$5 million[2]

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 long time best friends. Despite both of them being easy-going, womanizing, party animals, the two are professional freelance contractors and partners, working for Communications Integrity or ComTeg, a private intelligence agency that handles covert assignments for the CIA.

In their latest assignment together, the two help rescue Vorodny (Helmut Dantine), an East European defector, blowing up a building to fake Vorodny's death. After delivering the defector to other ComTeg operatives, Locken and Hansen celebrate at a party that involves sex and dope. Hansen trolls Locken by pretending he went through the purse of the woman Locken slept with and found a letter from her doctor asking her to see him about a vaginal infection. Then Hansen reveals he's done up a whole bunch of these letters and just fills in the name.

Arriving at a safehouse, the two of them relieve other ComTeg agents who have been guarding Vorodny. Unknown to Locken, Hansen had been bought out by an unknown rival group to assassinate Vorodny. Hansen kills Vorodny while Locken is in the shower. Exiting the shower, Locken finds Hansen holding a silenced pistol, which he assumes is another practical joke. Hansen critically shoots his friend in the knee and elbow, telling Locken that he has "just been retired".

Rushed to a hospital, Locken is told by his ComTeg bosses Lawrence Weybourne (Gig Young) and Cap Collis (Arthur Hill) that he is crippled for life and that his career as a freelance contractor is over. He is subsequently visited by ex-friend Mac (Burt Young), former ComTeg operative and skilled wheelman, but Locken refuses to see him.

After months of painful rehabilitation, Locken wears metal braces, but is able to walk with a cane. Upon being released from the hospital, Locken moves in with his nurse, Amy, to continue his therapy. As months pass, Locken undergoes serious martial arts training with a cane, becoming adept with it while vowing revenge against Hansen for his betrayal and crippling him for life.

Cap refuses to put Locken back on the field again, assuming that he is only fit for a desk job. Danny O’Leary, a CIA operative, hires ComTeg to protect Yuen Chung, a known Taiwanese politician who arrived in the United States with his daughter, Tommie. The two were ambushed at San Francisco airport by Japanese ninja, led by one Toku. At first, Weyburn turns down the assignment O’Leary offers him until he learns that Hansen is leading a team of assassins to kill Chung. He orders Collis to hire Locken as leader of a team of mercenaries to go after Hansen, while protecting Yuen and his daughter.

Assigned to the duty once more, Locken assemble his team to protect Chung and get his revenge on Hansen. The first was Jerome Miller (Bo Hopkins), a highly skilled marksman with professional knowledge of firearms and blacklisted from ComTeg employment, due to his psychopathic traits. Locken's old friend Mac is next; having gone to his garage to apologize for refusing to see him at the hospital, Locken convinces him to join his team. Mac is disappointed that Locken is back working for ComTeg and believes his obsession of Hansen will lead to his downfall, yet chooses to work with Locken once more. Mac takes Locken to look at a taxicab he outfitted with armor, unaware that Sam, a mechanic, has placed a bomb in the undercarriage.

After Miller appears, the three drive to a phone booth and telephone Collis for instructions. After the call ends, it is revealed that Collis is in collaboration with Hansen to depose Weyburn as head of ComTeg and the Grand Master of the ninja team, who wants Yuen dead. Hansen is deeply unhappy at having two separate groups hunting the same target, and looked down on the ninjas as incompetent due to their actions at the airport. Collis nevertheless insists on the arrangement and the Ninja Grand Master agrees, willing to let Hansen make his move first, preparing to finish what he started if he fails to kill Yuen.

Later, in Chinatown, Locken leaves Mac and Miller in the car as he goes to meet with Chung. Miller senses danger when a garbage truck parks, partially blocking the street. He runs into the building to tell Locken. Mac radios Locken that a police officer is approaching, then spots Hansen and Hamilton on a nearby roof. As Locken leads Chung's party downstairs, the police officer demands Locken throw down his gun. Miller notices that the policeman is not carrying the standard issue San Francisco police pistol, and shoots him with his shotgun. Locken provides cover fire as Miller, Chung and his people leap into the cab. Assassins disguised as garbage men open fire, but Mac refuses to leave until Locken gets into the car. As Mac speeds away, Miller guns down the assassins. Police give chase through the streets of San Francisco, until Mac's driving prowess causes them to crash.

Later, Mac pulls over to investigate a rattle in the back of the car and discovers the bomb. As he works to remove it, a motorcycle cop appears and demands that everyone get out of the car. Mac crawls out and hands the bomb to the policeman, who runs to throw it into the bay, while Locken's group drives off, after calling the cop a "dummy".

Locken telephones Collis and informs him that he is sailing Collis’ yacht and arranges for Chung to be picked up in the morning at Pier 70. Before Collis can alert Hansen, Weyburn insists no phone calls, so they can examine ComTeg's stock operations. Hours later, after Weyburn finally leaves, Collis calls Hansen and tells him where Locken will be.

After arriving at Pier 70, Locken suggests Chung and Tommie go upstairs and turn on the light that causes Mac to immediately accuse Locken of using their client as bait to get Hansen. He tells Locken that his obsession has blinded him of how easily he is manipulated by politicians who are hypocritical, and rely on men like Locken and Hansen to do their dirty work.

Soon, Chung and his daughter come downstairs dressed in black and carrying shurikens. Locken is infuriated when Tommie slips outside and asks Chung if it is true that his people do not care about dying. Chung replies that the manner one lives or dies is what gives life relevance, then explains that he is returning to Taiwan to promote democracy.

Hansen, and his bodyguard, Hank Hamilton arrive on the scene, and Hamilton rows out to board the yacht. After killing Chung's bodyguard, he paddles under the pier. Mac hears the rowboat, looks through a crack in the pier and shoots Hamilton. Meanwhile, Hansen gets the drop on Tommie and, using her as a hostage, gets Mac, Locken and Chung to surrender.

Hansen explains he is working for Collis, and argues that Locken being shot was nothing personal, and even offers to cut him in for some of the money, warning him that if he fails to kill Chung, more killers will be after them. Rather than accept the offer, Locken decides to walk away and take on Hansen another time on his own terms. However, Miller shoots Hansen while he was distracted, killing him. Completely shocked and infuriated that he is unable to exact his revenge on the man that crippled him, Locken punches Miller in the face.

Locken then telephones Weyburn and tells him about Collis' treachery. Weyburn orders Locken to follow up with the rendezvous plans and tells him that if he comes up with evidence that Cap is the traitor, he can have Cap's job. The following day, Locken sails the yacht to the empty ships of the U.S. Naval Reserve Fleet in Suisun Bay, and orders Chung and Tommie to stay aboard.

Locken, Miller, Mac, and a couple of other trusted ComTeg operatives board one of the ships and spot the ninja crawling overhead. Collis appears and offers Locken a bribe, but Locken shoots him in the arm and kneecap, using the same lines Hansen gave him when he betrayed him.

The ninja attack, but Miller mows them down with his machine gun. He is then shot by a gunman, but not before shooting back, taking his killer with him. Tommie and Chung arrive, just as Toku arrives as well and challenges Chung to a duel. Locken wants to shoot, but Chung accepts the challenge and after a short battle, kills Toku.

Weyburn arrives with reinforcements and the remaining ninja scatter. Mac accuses Weyburn of using them to do his dirty work, saying he is no different from Cap, and tries once more to convince Locken to leave ComTeg and retire like he did. Weyburn points out that a man like Locken has nothing else but his job. Surprisingly, Locken turns down Weyburn's job offer, but keeps Collis's yacht and the bribe money as payment, then sails away with Mac.



The film was shot in March and April 1974 in San Francisco with additional filming on location in Los Angeles.[1] The film featured the film debut of Tiana Alexandra, the wife of the co-writer Stirling Silliphant.[1]


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."[4]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."[5] 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."[6] Arthur D. Murphy of Variety noted it as "an okay Sam Peckinpah actioner ... Cast performs admirable against the programmer demands of the story."[7] 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."[8] 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."[9] 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."[10] 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."[11]

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."[12]

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.[13]

The film currently holds a score of 50% on Rotten Tomatoes based on 12 reviews.[14]

DVD and Blu-rayEdit

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 alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b c The Killer Elite at the American Film Institute Catalog
  2. ^ Murphy, A.D (January 21, 1976). "United Artists, '75, Domestic $85.9 Mil". Variety. p. 3.
  3. ^ Eder, Richard (1975-12-18). "'Killer Elite,' or Copping Out of the Universal Sell-Out". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2020-06-28.
  4. ^ Eder, Richard (December 18, 1975). "'Killer Elite,' or Copping Out of the Universal Sell-Out". The New York Times. p. 62.
  5. ^ Ebert, Roger. "The Killer Elite". Retrieved May 8, 2019.
  6. ^ Siskel, Gene (December 23, 1975). "'Killer Elite': Murder is such a nasty business". Chicago Tribune. Section 2, p. 5.
  7. ^ Murphy, Arthur D. (December 24, 1975). Variety. p. 14. Missing or empty |title= (help)
  8. ^ Thomas, Kevin (December 18, 1975). "Talent Wasted in 'Killer Elite'". Los Angeles Times. Part IV, p. 32.
  9. ^ "Upbeat Peckinpah". The Washington Post. December 25, 1975. p. H1.
  10. ^ Kael, Pauline (January 12, 1976). "The Current Cinema". The New Yorker. p. 73.
  11. ^ Milne, Tom (March 1976). "The Killer Elite". The Monthly Film Bulletin. 43 (506): 55.
  12. ^ Aoyama, Shinji (2012). "The Greatest Films Poll". Sight & Sound. Archived from the original on 2012-08-27.
  13. ^ Siskel, Gene (Nov 27, 1977). "James Caan's career hitting tough times". Chicago Tribune. p. e6.
  14. ^ "The Killer Elite". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved August 12, 2019.

External linksEdit