The Killer Elite

Two veteran CIA subcontractors pull off the dangerous job of a recovering an asset and transporting him to a safehouse. The two men trade jokes with the weary humor of a couple of professionals with years of well-worn experience. They are men who operate in a world where no one can be trusted and yet they count on one another like the brothers in arms they are.  That is, until one of them betrays the other, “retiring” his partner with a couple of well-placed bullets to the knee and elbow. The men are played by James Caan and Robert Duvall and the movie is Sam Peckinpah’s “The Killer Elite” (1975) featured April & May (2022) on MGM HD.



“The Killer Elite” plays like the template for the quintessential seventies spy thriller, the one from which many would copy over decades to come. Caan and Duvall are the jaded pros in the field. The always reliable Arthur Hill is the button-downed company man who funds their operations. Veteran actor Gig Young is the cagey handler who plays both sides of the street.  Bo Hopkins and Burt Young add color as the gun happy arms expert and the hapless wheelman, respectively. In the film’s post-Vietnam and post-Watergate era, the milieu is murky and the character’s motivations are questionable.



It’s a tough-guy movie directed by the ultimate tough guy director, Sam Peckinpah. By the mid-seventies, Peckinpah had directed a series of groundbreaking action movies that defined a cinematic vernacular for how violence was handled on film – slow motion effects and bloody realism to draw in and shock the audience. James Caan and Robert Duvall were at the peak of their box office and had worked together enough to have an easy shorthand on screen that makes their relationship believable and immediate.



But it is not so much the hallmarks of the genre; the gun fights, car chases, and action scenes – all of which are on full display – that make the movie interesting. What makes “The Killer Elite” compelling is the intimacy of the central story. Considerable screen time is given to James Caan’s character’s painstaking rehabilitation after the wounds dealt to him by his one-time partner. Peckinpah and Caan don’t shy away from showing us the man’s wounds or his difficult recovery. At its heart, it is a character study about a man who having spent his life in service of a company that considered him expendable, finds he has to rebuild his life. All of which raises the stakes on his decision to take on one more job.



The “Killer Elite,” made just before the blockbuster revolution and the advent of the “summer movie” that would mark the latter half of the seventies, is an elegiac movie about dignity and changing times. It is an essential movie from the middle of one of the best decades in movie history.

Check out “The Killer Elite” – April & May (2022) on MGM HD.