Posted by: Mark Nielsen | September 30, 2011

Killer Elite, Martial Arts Films, & All the Macho Stuff I Apparently Skipped

Cover of "The Killer Elite"

Cover of The Killer Elite


So I’m reading up today on Chicago African American filmmaker, curator and multimedia artist Floyd Webb  (whose life journey would itself make a cool movie, based on what I see at his blog…), and I suddenly become conscious of all the cool s*#t I just skipped right over while developing this sensitive, intellectual, white bohemian artist schtick the past 46 years. (A persona which I must confess ain’t always working for me anymore, btw …despite my big education, lately I’m thinking my “street cred” leaves something to be desired.)

Webb is a martial arts expert, and conossieur of kung fu films, including being in the midst of producing a documentary on karate/cult hero Count Dante. Meanwhile, despite being a lifelong Chicago guy, a friend of a few martial artists, and a former film school student, I’d never even heard of Count Dante. Am I too young, too white, or just two much of a wussy?

Take action flicks, for example. Never been a big fan.

Sure, I’ve seen most of the Die Hards, some James Bond stuff where the stunts are just mind-bogglingly good, what little Bruce Lee film material is available, and a few Jackie Chan movies (from both before and after he became a household name in the U.S.). I remember thinking the best thing about Lethal Weapon 4 was Jet Li kicking everyone’s ass, then getting his own ass beat. I like Jason Statham quite a bit (more on his Killer Elite film shortly), and Matt Damon’s Bourne movies are pretty great, too.

But I still prefer movies where the message comes first, and a chase sequence or fight scene or blowing s%!t up bores me just as often as it excites me. So sue me! For instance, I have to cop to watching The French Connection on DVD, by myself, for the great writing and acting, not the “tough guy” stuff. At first I considered the famous car chase scene under the elevated train tracks to be a nice bonus, not the seminal moment in cinematic history that it actually is. Also through DVDs (and usually also by myself), I intentionally tried to “appreciate” the ultra-violent but philosophically interesting films of Sam Peckinpah. Sam made the original Straw Dogs (featuring Dustin Hoffman) upon which the current remake is based. And I do appreciate Sam’s work, but it’s a guilty pleasure… which is my point.

For as a philosophical pacifist, my interest in action or martial arts films is mostly academic — not the adrenaline rush that most people flock to the genres to experience firsthand. I think since the 1930s, movies have become one of the main ways that both Eastern and Western culture remain too addicted to violence in their ACTUAL lives and politics. We feed our habit –our less-evolved appetite for blood– with the catharsis of a good revenge fantasy, only occasionally admitting there’s this certain part of our brain that’s actually getting off on that stuff far more than is good for us.

Speaking of Peckinpah and remakes, Floyd Webb’s blog also mentioned an earlier film called The Killer Elite, from 1975. It has some elements in common with the current film, but it’s not a remake. The earlier one featured James Caan — a legitimate martial artist himself, and one of the more well-rounded actors who have done some of these action flicks over the years. I’m not recommending or dissing the 1975 movie, as I haven’t seen it. But having heard on WXRT radio yesterday The Regular Guy’s middlin’ sort of review of the current Jason Statham/Robert DeNiro film Killer Elite, I had to go digging and satisfy my curiosity about the 1975 film.

Spirit-led, improvisational, somewhat random internet inquiry sometimes yields an odd result, though. For instance, here’s an imdb commenter — ssarag1138 (a reference to THX1138?) –with an interesting couple of  insider tidbits about Caan and the film:

I was fortunate enough to have interviewed Caan in his home in LA and when we got to talking about TKE, he just laughed. Peckinpah’s heart just wasn’t in it, the studio had told him before shooting commenced that he had to deliver a PG-13, and that about did it for him before even began. Much of the dialogue was just improvised, especially the hilarious conversation between Caan and Duvall in the car about STD results. Apparently Caan came up with that after he heard his brother Ronnie telling him the story about his own best friend the night before. Yes, drugs were rife on the set. And yet, the film that emerged is not a total mess. Its damaged goods for sure, but the editing saves it, as does Fielding’s brilliant score. But as for Burt Young being able to flatten a ninja? Oh boy

So, there you go. Action films –all films, really– are a combination of artistic and business decisions, and actioners are usually heavier on the business/b.s. side and compromise on creativity.
But what I don’t know about legitmate martial arts, and the numerous good films that feature interpretations of those various fighting styles, would fill many books. In fact, what I don’t know about fighting in general– about defending my fragile ego, or my country, or doggedly completing something I believe in– would fill several more books. That’s not an easy thing to have to admit, especially this late in the game.
But I’m not dead yet. I may have a revolution or two of my own to get involved in before I go. So I guess I’d better start some of my fight training, eh?


  1. For more on Count Dante and some clips of Webb’s work-in-progress film, check here:

    [ compliments of Dennis South and the Mathaba Publication Bridge ]

  2. A correction here, I am not a martial arts expert, I play flute way better than I wei so. But thanks for the mention. Just consider me a passionate filmmaker of a very difficult subject covering 100 years of martial arts, MMA history and their combined social histories. Plus there are a few good laughs in it all and some Russ Meyereque moments.

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