Sidewinder’s View: “The Killer Elite” (1975), Or: Burt Young, Smasher Of Ninjas!

I love Sam Peckinpah’s flawed– some would say incredibly flawed– 1975 Action-Thriller The Killer Elite. On his worst day, Peckinpah was a better director than most respectable directors are nowadays. At least his movies held my interest and entertained. I can’t think of one of his 14 feature films that didn’t merit at least a second viewing, if not more.


I’ve seen his feature debut The Deadly Companions only once, on VHS, due to its limited availability, but I’d certainly revisit the film if given the chance.

James Caan and Robert Duvall haven’t had much to say about their experience working on the film. What I gather, it was mostly a payday for both, but they certainly had a terrific chemistry together.

In his Seventies prime, Caan was undeniably a movie star who knew how to work the camera. Duvall’s incapable of an inauthentic moment. The rest of the cast (Tiana being the major exception) is just as solid: Bo Hopkins, Burt Young, Arthur Hill, Gig Young, Mako.

The cinematography, the editing, the San Francisco locations, Jerry Fielding’s magnificent score…

…on a strictly aesthetic level, these attributes alone make the film worthy of repeat viewings.

Admittedly, the script is a little uneven, occasionally mixing action and suspense with tired bits of simplistic humor, and the pace drags from time to time.

Despite its shortcomings, it continues to be a favorite of mine. That said…

…the martial arts action in The Killer Elite is probably the sloppiest, most poorly photographed I’ve ever seen in a professional motion picture. I would argue it’s the worst part of Peckinpah’s film, if only for the way he directed the action.

Well, okay, when Bo Hopkins sprays some sad-sack ninjas with Uzi fire, it’s pretty impressive. Best part of the whole finale, I’d argue.

AndyJim69 action guns ninja shooting


But those karate fights…ugh.

It’s almost as if Peckinpah didn’t give a damn and just handed the scene’s choreography over to some old Hollywood stuntmen whose experience with martial arts was limited to watching highlights from Enter The Dragon. That’s what it plays like, anyway.

The camera angles are too wide to hide the actors’ and stunt performers’ lack of skill as movie martial artists. The slow-motion kicks, blocks and punches only drain the scene of energy and excitement.

When blows are filmed at regular speed, they’re thrown slower than normal, as if the actors thought the director would be speeding things up in-camera or in the editing room. Even when presented in actual slow-mo, the blows don’t appear to deliver much of a wallop. There’s some truly awful fight scene choreography on display in this scene.

Towards the end of the fight, when Mako and his petite daughter save Caan and Co. from the ninjas, their offensive moves against the ninja aren’t convincing, either, just occasionally frenetic. Mako’s daughter looks to weigh about 90 lbs, all told, so when she KO’s bad guys with some pretty sloppy looking footwork, it’s eyeroll-inducing. 

The entire concept of ninjas staging an open attack on armed targets in broad daylight…in spite of the fact they’re wearing gray ninja suits to match their surroundings on a battleship (“Ha! You can’t see us, Jimmy Caan! We are NINJA!”)…was quite ridiculous all by itself.

In terms of their fighting skills, these have to be the most incompetent ninjas in movie history. Case in point?


Either Peckinpah was busting a gut behind the camera during filming of this scene or he was so high on cocaine that it all looked brilliant. From the stories I’ve heard about the making of The Killer Elite, I’m guessing it was the latter.

The Killer Elite‘s not as horrible as some insist it is. Over the past 26 years, I’ve owned it on Laserdisc, DVD and Blu-ray. It has its charms. I just wish its fight scenes were more convincing so my friends wouldn’t laugh at the movie when I screen it for them.