Sam Peckinpah

The Killer Elite

1975

United Artists

Directed by Sam Peckinpah

Produced by Martin Baum

Screenplay by Marc Norman and Stirling Silliphant

Based on the novel “Monkey In The Middle” by Robert Rostand

THE KILLER ELITE is most definitely a lesser Peckinpah entertainment. But lesser Sam Peckinpah is still better than most other directors on their best days. It hasn’t got the wild, chaotic and yet balletic violence of some of his earlier movies. It’s not as energetic as his other, earlier movies. And the story doesn’t deal with the themes Peckinpah is known for such as men searching for redemption and justification in a violent and dishonorable world. The two reasons for this could be because Sam Peckinpah wasn’t allowed to rewrite the screenplay and this was when Peckinpah began using cocaine. (allegedly it was the star of this movie, James Caan who introduced him to the stuff) and adding the yayo to Peckinpah’s already legendary intake of alcohol didn’t make for the best of working conditions.

In any case, whatever the reasons for the way it turned out, THE KILLER ELITE is essentially a straight-up cloak-and-dagger action flick. We got double crosses, gun fights, car chases, ninjas, martial arts…it all adds up to a satisfying package.

Mike Locken (James Caan) and George Hansen (Robert Duvall) are mercenaries working for a company called Communications Integrity. It’s a private intelligence/military/espionage corporation that contracts itself out to official government intelligence agencies to do the jobs that for one reason or another they can’t do. Locken and Hansen have been friends and partners for years and that’s the only thing that saves Locken on their last assignment together. Hansen has sold out to a rival corporation. He kills their latest client, an East European defector and goes against orders to kill Locken as well. Instead he shoots out Locken’s knee and elbow, crippling him.

As far as Locken’s bosses, Weybourne (Gig Young) and Cap Collis (Arthur Hill) are concerned, his career is over. But Locken undergoes an intensive period of rehabilitation that includes studying martial arts and actually becomes pretty damn fearsome at using his cane as a weapon. And the rehab pays off when Cap Collis comes to him with a job. An Asian client , Yuen Chung (Mako) needs protection from assassins while he’s in the United States. While the C.I.A. are supposedly in charge of his security they pass the job along to ComTeg because of who’s leading the assassination team: George Hansen.

Locken recruits two former ComTeg operatives as his backup for the assignment. Mac (Burt Young) is an expert driver who now owns his own garage where he builds custom made vehicles for security work. Jerome Miller (Bo Hopkins) is a weapons expert who doesn’t have all the spots on his dice. But what none of them are aware of is that they’re all pieces on a bloody chessboard and the game is an internal power struggle between Cap Collis and Weybourne.

You have to sit through a lot of plot exposition before getting to the good stuff but it’s worth it. I like the scenes of Locken regaining the use of his leg and arm and I appreciate that the story doesn’t turn him into a Jim Kelly level martial arts master. He’s good but he’s not that good. I enjoyed the humor in the scenes of him recruiting Mac and Miller. Burt Young and Bo Hopkins obviously are having a lot of fun in their scenes together and I wish they had had more. Burt Young gets a lot of mileage out of his character Mac who is an unashamed slob. Unkempt is a polite word for his appearance. But put him behind the wheel of a car or a .45 automatic in his hand and he’s pure dynamite. And quite unexpectedly he takes on the job of being Locken’s conscience, forcing Locken to re-evaluate his own worth in this shadow word of death and deceit.

There’s a couple of terrific action sequences such as a Chinatown shoot-out and a battle between Locken, Mac and a hoard of katana wielding ninja. There’s a really goofy scene involving Mac’s wife Josephine (Sondra Blake) who calls everybody ‘Mr. Davis’ when Locken is around. The funniest scene is probably the one where Mac is trying to defuse a bomb attached to the underside of their getaway car while a cop is standing over him, kicking his legs, demanding he come out from under there while Locken is calmly explaining to the cop why that isn’t such a hot idea.

So should you see THE KILLER ELITE? Yes. I will be the first to say it’s not one of Sam Peckinpah’s best but it’s a solid action flick that has good performances from everybody and more than enough story to hold your interest until the ass-kicking commences. Highly recommended.

122 minutes

Rated PG

Better In The Dark #135

The Boys Outta Brooklyn commemorate the passing of the star of such films as THE WILD BUNCH, FROM HERE TO ETERNITY, and ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK by inducting him into the Hall of Great, Great, Men. Hear Tom and Derrick discuss a wonderful career that saw Borgnine play heroes and villains, goofs and tough guys, main characters and supporting guys, all with his trademark wolf’s grin. Plus Eurocrime Expendables, what Snake Plissken and Jack Burton have in common besides being played by Kurt Russell, and a double feature of movies made when William Shatner was living in his van. You know you don’t want to ride that train, so get to clicking!

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Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia

1974

United Artists

Directed by Sam Peckinpah
Produced by Martin Baum
Screenplay by Sam Peckinpah and Gordon T. Dawson
Story by Sam Peckinpah and Frank Kowalski

A young pregnant girl is ushered into the cavernous den of her father, a powerful Mexican industrialist/crime lord. The room is filled with family, friends and a doctor stands nearby. The industrialist has only one question for his pregnant daughter: “Who is the father?” She refuses to identify him. Three times he asks and three times she refuses. He motions to two of his men. One holds the girl down while the other, with a casual ruthlessness, breaks her arm. The girl collapses to the floor, sobbing while her mother rushes to her side, along with the other women in the family and the doctor. The doctor whispers to the girl and she hands over a locket with the picture of a man inside. It’s given to her father who recognizes the man and issues a simple order to his army of hired guns and assassins: BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA.

I related the above scene because I know that many readers of my reviews are women (God Bless ‘em, every one) and so might be sensitive to such a scene of brutality involving a girl who looks to be around 16 years old. Be advised that this scene happens in the first five minutes of the movie and Sam Peckinpah is just getting warmed up. If you think the first five minutes of BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA are horrifyingly sadistic and savagely brutal then you must not know your Peckinpah. Trust me, there’s a lot more to come during this movie. If you’re a sensitive soul as you read further you may just decide that this movie isn’t your bag and decide you don’t want to see it. Well, that’s why I write reviews for you, my friends.

The mercenaries and hired guns spread out across Mexico, hunting for Alfredo Garcia. The father has placed a million dollar price on the head. Just the head, mind you. But it’s got to be intact and plainly identifiable as Alfredo Garcia. Two American bounty hunters, Quill (Gig Young) and Sappensly (Robert Webber) wind up in a dingy fifth rate bar/whorehouse where they meet piano player Bennie (Warren Oates) who is sick to death of playing “Gunatanamera” for half-drunk tourists looking for ‘local color’. Bennie soon strikes a deal with the two men. He thinks he can find Alfredo Garcia for $10,000. Quill and Sappensly agree. With the condition that if Bennie doesn’t produce results in four days, there will be no hard feelings when they kill Bennie. Call it a breach of contract clause.

Bennie tracks down the beautiful Elita (Isela Vega) a hooker he knows has been sleeping on and off with Garcia. She’s also been sleeping with Bennie more off than on lately and he thinks it has something to do with Garcia. Turns out that Alfredo Garcia is dead and Elita knows where he’s buried. Bennie and Elita sneak out of town to go dig up the body so Bennie can get the head. But it’s not that easy. Bennie finds the body and takes the head but he has to fight for it in a truly grisly battle to the death where Elita is killed. Bennie puts the head in a burlap sack and as the movie goes on he forms a weird sort of bond with the head. He calls it “Al” and speaks as though it can hear him. Bennie starts to see that he and “Al” have a lot in common as he defends the head against all who try and take it from him. And Bennie decides to take “Al” directly to the man who asked for the head. It’s a confrontation that will end in a horrendously bloody shootout fueled by booze, grief, hatred and revenge.

BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA is by no means a fun date movie. In fact, there’s a good chance you’ll be depressed after watching it. Unless you’re like me and actually enjoy this kind of take-no-prisoners storytelling. It’s not a pretty movie to watch. You can almost taste the sweat and dirt on the characters. It’s an extremely violent movie, even by today’s standards. But this is a Sam Peckinpah movie and one of Peckinpah’s major strengths as a director and as a storyteller was that he knew how to show violence. And I mean real violence. After a fight or shootout in a Sam Peckinpah movie there’s no high-fiving or throwing off glib wisecracks. The survivors are exhausted, traumatized and oftentimes surprised to find themselves still alive. Peckinpah directed “The Wild Bunch” which has what I think is the best shootout ever filmed and the movie’s graphic violence is legendary. In fact, the movie was reissued in 1993 with an NC-17 rating because of its violence. BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA isn’t quite in that category but its close.

The movie is worth seeing just for the performance of Warren Oates alone. A major character actor, Mr. Oates had few opportunities to star in a movie and after seeing this one, I wish he had. As Bennie he goes through an amazing range of emotions and situations, from wanna-be tough guy, to drunken slob, to tender lover and finally, grim avenger. It’s an Oscar worthy performance and supposedly, Mr. Oates adopted a lot of the personal mannerisms of Sam Peckinpah himself to use as Bennie. The sunglasses he wears throughout the movie were a pair he stole from Peckinpah.

Isela Vega is remarkable as Elita. She’s simply fascinating to look at and has a mature sexuality I find irresistible. This isn’t some anorexic pop tart trying to play a woman. This is most certainly a woman in body and soul and the scenes between Vega and Oates are amazing to watch in their raw frankness. They have a scene where they wake up the next day after having sex and the scene is amazingly natural in that they act as if the camera isn’t there. You know what I’m talking about. They do the things that people do after waking up from a night of boozy sex that might make you squirm uncomfortably if you’ve ever been there.

Gig Young and Robert Webber almost seem to be winking at the camera sometimes as they play their bounty hunter characters. They’re obviously having fun. There’s a great scene where they first meet Bennie and one of the bar’s whores tries to come onto Webber’s character. Webber cold cocks her without blinking an eye and the bar empties out in 4.1 seconds, with the whore’s girlfriends picking her up and carrying her out. I wouldn’t even spoil it for you by relating Bennie’s comment here. But you may find yourself laughing out loud and then wondering just why you laughed. And there’s a great bit where Bennie asks the Gig Young character what his name his. Young smirks as he answers; “Fred C. Dobbs”. Which shows me that the character Young plays was well aware of the parallel between the situation they were in and “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” And keep your eye out for a young Kris Kristofferson as a biker rapist.

So should you see BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA? I would say yes for a number of reasons: Sam Peckinpah was one of the greatest director/storytellers we’re ever gonna see and this movie is his dark, twisted masterpiece. It is so uncompromising in its vision that I honestly think it couldn’t be made today. The performance of Warren Oates is masterful. There are scenes of unrelenting psychosis as he drives toward his rendezvous with Hell, talking to the head of Alfredo Garcia that may make you think Mr. Oates is actually drinking real tequila from that bottle he keeps next to the head. You can see where notable film directors Quentin Tarentino and John Woo got a lot of their influences in this movie. But it’s a movie that shouldn’t be seen unless you’re willing to go where it’ll take you. There’s a part in the movie when Elita allows herself to be taken away to be raped and she says to Bennie; “I’ve been down this road before and you don’t know the way” I kinda get the impression that Sam Peckinpah thought the same way about directing BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA.

112 minutes
Rated R

The Wild Bunch

1969

Warner Bros-Seven Arts

Directed by Sam Peckinpah

Produced by Phil Feldman

Screenplay by Sam Peckinpah and Waylon Green

Based on a story by Waylon Green and Roy N. Sickner

THE WILD BUNCH represents a lot to me personally.  Besides being one of the greatest Western movies ever made.  THE WILD BUNCH was my first “grown-up” movie that my father took me to see.  Just the two of us went and we went to a Chinese restaurant for dinner afterwards to talk about the movie.  It was a great day and there’s not many days from my childhood that remain as vivid as that particular day.  It also was the first Western I ever saw in a movie theater and so began my overwhelming love for the genre which is just as fierce today.

Sam Peckinpah may have had his faults but by God, could the man direct a movie.  And THE WILD BUNCH, along with “Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia” and “Ride The High Country” represents what I personally consider his holy trinity of Westerns.  And yes, even though “Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia” is set in modern times, it is a Western.

But in a way, THE WILD BUNCH is set in modern times as well.  The gang of aging outlaws we follow through the movie don’t carry the time-honored six-shooters we’re used to seeing in a Western.  No, these guys pack .45 automatics and pump shotguns.  That’s because the movie’s set in 1913.  Times are changing rapidly, thanks to technology, represented in the movie by the railroad, automatic weapons and automobiles.  Pike Bishop (William Holden) Dutch Engstrom (Ernest Borgnine) Lyle and Tector Gorch (Warren Oates and Ben Johnson) Angel (Jaime Sanchez) and Freddie Sykes (Edmund O’Brien) are The Wild Bunch and their latest job has gone totally bust.  They attempt to rob a Texas railroad office and end up being ambushed by a posse of bloodthirsty yet hopelessly incompetent bounty hunters (Peckinpah regulars L.Q. Jones and Strother Martin among them) led by Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan) who once was Pike’s best friend and rode with The Wild Bunch.  He’s been released from Yuma with one mandate: hunt down and kill his old partners or get sent back to Yuma.  He really doesn’t want to go back to Yuma.

They end up with bags full of washers instead of gold.  The failure of this job brings the gang to a painful conclusion: times are changing and as Pike says; “We’ve got to start looking past our guns.” There’s no more wild west for these guys to roam and they’re getting too old for this line of work.

Pike and the others make a deal with the Mexican General Mapache (Emilio Fernandez) to rob an Army train transporting guns and ammo and turn it over to him.  Mapache’s willing to pay them enough to retire on but Angel’s not willing to steal guns for Mapache.  Mexican himself, Angel argues that Mapache’s nothing but a petty tyrant, setting himself up as general to exploit his own people.  Angel also doesn’t appreciate Mapache having stolen his woman.  But due to the presence of a German munitions expert/military advisor (Fernando Wagner) it’s pretty obvious to ex-military men like Pike and Dutch that Mapache’s ambitions are anything but petty.  Angel agrees to help rob the train if he can have some guns to give to his village.

And so The Wild Bunch goes off to pull what they hope will be their last job.  But it’s a job that will test their rough code of loyalty to each other.  A job that will end in bloody vengeance.

There’s really not much I can say about THE WILD BUNCH that you probably already haven’t read or heard about your own self.  It’s rightly earned its reputation as a masterpiece of filmmaking.  And more than 40 years after it was made it still is considered one of the most violent movies ever made.  In 1993, the movie was resubmitted to the MPAA ratings board for the movie’s theatrical re-release and the board slapped it with an NC-17.  Hard to argue with that one, considering the astronomical body count.  And especially that apocalyptic final shootout in which The Wild Bunch massacres an entire army in a suicidal orgy of gunfire that has to be seen to be believed.

But it isn’t just the violence that makes this movie so outstanding for me.  It’s the perfect cast that is nothing less than convincing in every shot.  The themes of trust and betrayal between men who try to be honorable in a world and profession that won’t let them.  The moody interludes between the characters.  Such as the quiet talk between Pike and Dutch as they lie beside a campfire.  Or the conversation with an old Mexican bandit.  Or the ending which carries the promise of a new Wild Bunch.

If you’ve seen THE WILD BUNCH then you know what I’m talking about.  If you haven’t, I don’t know why you’ve waited this long.  It’s a masterpiece, plain and simple.  If you’ve never seen it, Netflix it at your earliest opportunity.  If you have, what the hell, see it again.

143 minutes

Rated: R