By the mid-1970s, the career of director Sam Peckinpah had basically hit the skids. He had seen one more film of his (PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID) butchered by a studio (MGM) in 1973; then, in 1974, his most overtly personal film, the admittedly ghoulish-sounding BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA, was roundly trashed by audiences and critics alike. And on top of that, the excesses that had been plaguing him on and off for years were starting to dominate his life. Yet through all of this, he somehow managed to pull off the good when he was sober. A case in point was the action thriller THE KILLER ELITE, released near the end of 1975.
In this film, James Caan portrays an employee for a CIA-sponsored offshoot group called ComTeg (Communications Integrity) who, in protecting a German political figure (Helmut Dantine), is maliciously wounded by his partner (Robert Duvall) in the leg and arm. Though his superiors in ComTeg (Arthur Hill; Gig Young) tell him that those injuries are so severe that he may never be able to walk fully again, Caan vows to get back into the game, exposing himself to strenuous rehabilitation and martial arts exercises. When Hill gives him the chance, via protecting a Japanese politician (Mako) until he can be gotten out of the country, Caan immediately grabs onto it, especially with the fringe benefit of knowing Duvall has resurfaced and is gunning for Mako on his own. The whole operation turns out to be part of an internecine battle of wills inside ComTeg between their two superiors, first resulting in a fatal confrontation at the Bethlehem Steel shipyard, and then a high-energy showdown aboard a mothballed World War II vessel in Suisun Bay involving Japanese kung-fu masters.
It is easy to simply dismiss THE KILLER ELITE (which, however, shouldn't be confused with the similarly-titled, but unrelated and much more violent, 2011 film of the same name) as lesser Peckinpah, but he should still be given credit for having taken a strictly commercial property (much like his big 1972 hit THE GETAWAY), and turning it into a solid action film with some bursts of sardonic humor, plus points being made about the dirty business of the CIA at a time when the agency was being battered in the press for its foreign shenanigans and domestic spying, plus its role in covering up Watergate. He would return to this theme in his last film, 1983's THE OSTERMAN WEEKEND.
Under Peckinpah's direction, both Caan and Duvall, who had appeared together before in THE GODFATHER, do solid work as the two friends set up against one another; and Hill and Gig Young (the latter of whom made for a dispassionate killer in ALFREDO GARCIA) are equally good in their bureaucratic roles. Burt Young and Bo Hopkins do good solid turns as Caan's two partners in the protection of Mako's ambitious Oriental political figure. As is typical with Peckinpah, the action scenes are shot and edited in that characteristic Peckinpah style; and the on-location cinematography by Philip Lathrop, whose credits include 1965's THE CINCINNATI KID (from which Peckinpah was unceremoniously fired), is also superb. And finally, Jerry Fielding, working with Peckinpah one final time, comes up with another iconoclastic music score that combines jazz, dissonance, and Far Eastern music elements.
The end result may not have been "classic Peckinpah" (it is certainly less bloody than THE WILD BUNCH, STRAW DOGS, or ALFREDO GARCIA), but THE KILLER ELITE is still far superior to most of the ultra-violent action flicks that would follow in Peckinpah's wake.