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The Killer Elite: The Limited Edition Series Blu-ray Review

The Killer Elite (1975) movie poster The Killer Elite

Theatrical Release: December 19, 1975 / Running Time: 123 Minutes / Rating: PG

Director: John Irvin / Writers: Marc Norman, Stirling Silliphant (screenplay), Robert Syd Hopkins (novel Monkey in the Middle)

Cast: James Caan (Mike Locken), Robert Duvall (George Hansen), Arthur Hill (Cap Collis), Bo Hopkins (Jerome Miller), Mako (Yuen Chung), Burt Young (Mac), Gig Young (Lawrence Weyburn), Tom Clancy (O'Leary), Tiana (Tommie), Walter Kelley (Walter), Kate Heflin (Nurse Amy Burke), Sondra Blake (Josephine), Carole Mallory (Rita), James Wing Woo (Tao Yi), George Kee Chung (Bruce), Hank Hamilton (Hank), Victor Sen Young (Wei Chi), Tak Kubota (Negato Toku), Rick Alemany (Ben), Johnnie Burrell (Donnie), Billy J. Scott (Eddie), Helmut Dantine (Vorodny)

Buy The Killer Elite & Noon Wine on Blu-ray at Amazon.com

Three years after appearing together as members of the Corleone crime family in The Godfather, James Caan and Robert Duvall reunited as best friends turned nemeses in The Killer Elite,
a crime action thriller directed but not written by celebrated filmmaker Sam Peckinpah.

When the film opens, Mike Locken (Caan) and George Hansen (Duvall) are inseparable pals, who share an apartment, women, and endless laughs at work, where the two are partnered as contractors for a private intelligence agency with CIA ties. On a surveillance job, George shoots a colleague to death, then turns the gun on Mike, getting him in the knee and elbow and declaring his best friend "retired."

Here, the movie shifts gears to focus on Mike's grueling physical rehabilitation. Working hard to get back into form, Mike progresses from crutches to a cane with the help of a nurse he begins dating (Kate Heflin). Despite his efforts, the company doesn't want him back and wishes he would just take the $1,500 a month disability pay they're giving him. Not surprisingly, Mike wants his old life back and vengeance on George.

In "The Killer Elite" (1975), contract killer Mike Locken (James Caan) recruits his skeet-shooting friend Jerome Miller (Bo Hopkins) to join him on a mission in front of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Mike gets his shot at both of those things when the previously discouraging Cap Collis (Arthur Hill) enlists his services following a melee at San Francisco International Airport involving a Japanese assassin group which is said to be working with George. Mike reconnects with Jerome Miller (Bo Hopkins), a sharpshooter whose sanity has been questioned, and Mac (Burt Young), a car shop owner who has been trying to get out of this deadly racket.

With Mac providing a fortified, souped-up yellow taxi cab and Miller supplying the weapons, the trio hooks up with the Asian man they are to protect (Mako) and his virginal 18-year-old daughter (Tiana Alexandra). Unbeknownst to this party, Collis has also hired George, pitting the former partners and best friends against each other with his own interests in mind.

The Killer Elite opens with the spirit and energy of a comedy film, as Mike and George come up with witty organizations "CIA" could stand for and have a good laugh about Mike having slept with a woman with a vaginal infection. The movie becomes slow and heavy-handed as it turns its attentions to Mike's rehab. Then it picks up again when throwing him back into his area of expertise with the stakes raised and his physical abilities dulled. The movie feels somewhat finished with another twenty minutes to go, but it has a big show-stopping finale (with ninjas!) yet to come and provide further closure.

Friend turned enemy George Hansen (Robert Duvall) holds a teenaged girl (Tiana Alexandra) hostage in his much-anticipated showdown with Mike. With work, time, and help from friends, Mike Locken (James Caan) is able to recover from his debilitating gunshot injuries.

I didn't expect much from The Killer Elite, having been severely underwhelmed by my first two Peckinpah movies, the highly-regarded The Wild Bunch and Straw Dogs.
Those have cracked all-time lists and carry IMDb ratings in the low 8s and high 7s respectively. Killer Elite, on the other hand, has virtually no reputation and sports only a 6.0 average rating on IMDb, which is poor for an older movie that only 3,500 people have cared enough to vote on. While those lowered expectations couldn't have hurt, I found the film to be a pretty enjoyable outing. The Godfather, it's not, but it can withstand comparisons to less lofty '70s cinema, like Dirty Harry, another crime thriller set in San Francisco which feels like part of the same universe.

Though Caan and Duvall have often been billed as equals, the movie clearly belongs to Caan. After his opening betrayal, George disappears until the one-hour mark and is scarcely seen after that. Caan, on the other hand, is in nearly every scene and is the central focus of most. He's a talented and charismatic actor, who has endured for decades without ever getting another role quite as juicy as Sonny Corleone (few are). As a leading man, he's generally been a tough man's man, one not cut out for a life without crime. Caan does his best acting when it looks like he's not acting at all, which is a lot of the time. Even in a fairly routine action vehicle like this, he is appealing.

Peckinpah is known for his violence, something that even saddled The Wild Bunch with an NC-17 rating in a 1993 director's cut MPAA resubmission, though it was appealed and replaced with a more suitable R. Killer Elite is rated PG, but it is absolutely a 1970s PG, not to be confused with the identical rating assigned to most animated films these days. No fewer than five and a half breasts are briefly bared (most of them randomly) and there is also some violence, even if it is tame by today's standards.

Killer Elite is certainly not an edgy film. It's a film for adults, but one you could easily imagine grandfathers liking, even back then. It's a subdued production, which finds practically every line of dialogue delivered calmly and at a low volume.

Killer Elite, which has positively nothing to do with the similarly-titled 2011 Jason Statham-Robert De Niro film (which was based on a novel other than Robert Syd Hopkins' Monkey in the Middle), recently made its way to Blu-ray from Twilight Time, who licensed the title from MGM in their usual limited print run of 3,000 copies.

The Killer Elite: The Limited Edition Series Blu-ray cover art -- click to buy from Screen Archives Blu-ray Disc Details

2.35:1 Widescreen
1.0 DTS-HD Master Audio (English), 2.0 DTS-HD MA (Isolated Score)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired
Not Closed Captioned; Extras Not Subtitled
Release Date: September 9, 2014
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (BD-50)
List Price: $29.95
Blue Keepcase
Also available on Amazon Instant Video
Previously released on DVD (February 23, 1999)

VIDEO and AUDIO

The Killer Elite looks excellent on Blu-ray. The 2.35:1 picture is refreshingly spotless and vibrant, as the element boasts appropriate detail and hides its considerable age. One could hardly ask for a better 1080p presentation than this.

The soundtrack isn't as conducive to praise, with the volume being so low and a tad inconsistent. But the 1.0 DTS-HD master audio mono mix gets the job done, making it unlikely you'll need to consult the English SDH subtitles more than once or twice if your hearing is fine.

Bo Hopkins wants you to remember his name in the new retrospective documentary "Passion & Poetry: Sam's Killer Elite." "Promoting 'The Killer Elite'" showcases marketing art from various parts of the world.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

It's become the norm for catalogue titles to reach Blu-ray with new extras only if they are a perennial best-selling movie or if they are being released in The Criterion Collection. Neither of those applies to The Killer Elite,
which makes it all the more surprising and delightful that Twilight Time has treated this marginal thriller to a loaded Blu-ray debut.

The extras begin with a brand new screen-specific audio commentary by film historians Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons, and Nick Redman. They are surprisingly very critical (they're down on the final two-thirds of the film and of everything screenwriter's muse Tiana Alexandra does) but do express some appreciation and a good deal of knowledge acquired by research about Peckinpah, the cast, and problems ranging from unresolved script issues to the director's newly-developed cocaine habit.

On the video side, all content is sadly presented in standard definition. We start with a 2012 retrospective titled "Passion & Poetry: Sam's Killer Elite" (27:45). Independently directed and produced by Mike Siegel, it interviews actor Bo Hopkins, who reveals an alternate fate shot for his character, Peckinpah alumni Isela Vega, Ernest Borgnine, James Coburn, and Kris Kristofferson; the director's associate Katy Haber, who has the best dirt to dish, and the director's sister Fern Lea Peter. It also makes extensive use of footage from the filming of Killer Elite. What a great addition this is.

"Promoting The Killer Elite" (4:15) is a scored slideshow displaying poster designs, lobby cards, VHS covers, and magazine covers used to market the film in different parts of the world.

Those charged with marketing the movie were really proud of this classified ad idea and used it on every TV and radio ad. What starts as a discussion of tobacco preferences evolves into murder in Sam Peckinpah's 1966 "Noon Wine."

A logical next stop from there is the film's original video and audio marketing materials: a number of TV and radio spots (5:10) which all run with a classified ad design that gets old fast and the film's letterboxed original theatrical trailer (2:12). MGM's 90th anniversary library-showcasing trailer (2:06), the only HD extra, is also included.

Twilight Time also fits the movie with one of their standard isolated score offerings in 2.0 DTS-HD master audio, which are always nice to have there even if making time to listen to these often silent alternate soundtracks isn't a priority for you.

From most studios, all of the aforementioned would make for a release satisfying beyond expectations, but we're not done yet. The most exciting bonus feature of all is Noon Wine (51:18), a 1966 episode of the anthology series "ABC Stage 67" written and directed by Sam Peckinpah. A Hollywood outcast at the time following his tumultuous experiences on Major Dundee and The Cincinnati Kid (from which he was fired), this television program adapts the 1937 short novel of the same name by Katherine Ann Porter.

Set in the 1800s, it finds a Swedish man named Helton (Per Oscarsson) from North Dakota looking to work for a dollar a day. Texas farm owner Royal Earle Thompson (Jason Robards) hires him for $7 a month plus food. Quiet and introverted, Helton is a model worker, who likes to play the harmonica in his spare time. He's still working there three years later when a man named Homer T. Hatch (Theodore Bikel) informs Thompson that Helton is a lunatic who killed his brother. Standing up for his worker, a scuffle ensues when Hatch produces handcuffs for the Swede and winds up dead. Thompson insists he acted in self-defense, but many have their doubts, including his wife (Gone with the Wind's Olivia de Havilland). Even after he is acquitted on murder charges, Thompson is racked with guilt and desperate to clear his name.

Shooting on film for outdoor locations and video for indoor sets, Noon Wine doesn't look so bad for being virtually lost for almost 50 years. There is some slight discoloring and minor wear, but this presentation must be a big step up from the black and white kinescopes long thought to be the best surviving version of this enjoyable program.

Mr. Thompson (Olivia de Havilland) is shocked by what her husband (Jason Robards) has just done in 1966's "Noon Wine." Jimmy Caan takes aim on The Killer Elite's copper-toned Blu-ray menu.

As if it wasn't enough to get the first home video release of this rarely-seen, never-rerun early Peckinpah work, Noon Wine is also equipped with a commentary by the trio of Seydor, Simmons, and Redman, which puts the program into context, in terms of the director's career, the program's rarity, and as an adaptation of Porter's story.

As usual, the static menu simply adapts the cover art. Twilight Time includes their full catalogue on disc for your perusal.
The disc sadly does not resume unfinished playback or let you set bookmarks.

The final supplement is found inside the case: an 8-page booklet which is a standard at Twilight Time and almost no other studios. This nicely illustrated, staple-bound leaflet is composed primarily of an essay by Julie Kirgo. It opens with a celebration of Noon Wine as one of Peckinpah's unsung tender efforts usually overshadowed by his more rugged, violent films. From there, it comes around to discussing The Killer Elite with noticeably less admiration but still some good notes and appreciation.

The close jocular friendship of colleagues-roommates George Hansen (Robert Duvall) and Mike Locken (James Caan) does not last long.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

It may be sacrilege to admit this, but I found more to like about The Killer Elite and the made-for-TV Noon Wine than the much-heralded, high-minded films Sam Peckinpah made in between them.

Twilight Time's Blu-ray release absolutely delights with its fantastic feature presentation and wealth of newly-unearthed and newly-produced bonus material. While Killer Elite may not be something you're inclined to watch with much regularity, catalogue Blu-rays this lovingly assembled are rare enough to encourage a purchase of this platter over films of comparable worth.

Buy The Killer Elite & Noon Wine on Blu-ray at Amazon.com

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Mako: The Island at the Top of the World The Ugly Dachshund TMNT
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Reviewed October 24, 2014.



Text copyright 2014 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 1975 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, United Artists and 2014 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Twilight Time.
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