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Category:    Home > Reviews > Action > Crime > Martial Arts > Spy > Thriller > Gangster > Epic > British > Urban > Dutch > The Killer Elite (1975/United Artists/Twilight Time Limited Edition Blu-ray)/Once Upon A Time In America: Extended Director's Cut (1984/Warner Blu-ray)/Villain (1971/MGM/Warner Archive DVD)/Wolf (2013

The Killer Elite (1975/United Artists/Twilight Time Limited Edition Blu-ray)/Once Upon A Time In America: Extended Director's Cut (1984/Warner Blu-ray)/Villain (1971/MGM/Warner Archive DVD)/Wolf (2013/MPI/IFC DVD)

Picture: B/B/C/C Sound: C+/B/C/C+ Extras: B/C/D/C+ Films: B/A-/B-/B-

PLEASE NOTE: The Killer Elite is only available from our friends at Twilight Time, is limited to only 3,000 copies and can be ordered while supplies last. Villain is now only available from Warner Bros. through their Warner Archive series and both can be ordered from the link below.

Here's a set of crime dramas for you to know about, including an outright classic, two other near classics of note and a new foreign release that has its moments...

Sam Peckinpah's The Killer Elite (1975) is an action thriller that predates the mostly bad actioners of the 1980s while trying to do something different. James Caan and Robert Duvall co-star has them doing deadly work for the CIA when Duvall turns on Caan, nearly killing him during an assignment. Caan has to take some serious time to recover, but will do anything to finally get revenge and find out why and what happened. We know some of it, but not all and this becomes partly a character study co-written by Stirling Silliphant.

Following in the mode of assassination thrillers like The Mechanic, Three Days Of The Condor and even the Bond films (which were in need of a serious revival at this point that they eventually got) which were influencing more than a few of the more serious thrillers of this time, the film is not a pure Peckinpah film, but it still works well just the same thanks to its cast that also includes Mako, Arthur Hill, Gig Young, Victor Sen Yung and Burt Young.

The martial arts elements are usually good and meld well with the film, though the ninja segment (trying to update the You Only Live Twice take, but succeeding as much as The Yakuza) yielded mixed results then and comes across as odd still today. Otherwise, it is an underrated film that deserves rediscovery and you should get your copy while supplies last.

Extras reliably include yet another nicely illustrated booklet on the film including informative text and another thorough essay by Julie Kirgo, while the Blu-ray adds TV & Radio Spots, the Original Theatrical Trailer, a brand new feature length audio commentary track by film historians Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons & Nick Redmond that is very thorough about the film, featurettes Promoting The Killer Elite and Passion & Poetry: Sam's Killer and an amazing bonus in Noon Wine, a 1966 TV adaptation of the Katherine Ann Porter novella with no less than Jason Robards, Olivia de Havilland and Theodore Bikel. The same trio of gentlemen supplying the film's commentary do one for this show as well. What a great Special Edition!

Sergio Leone's Once Upon A Time In America: Extended Director's Cut (1984) finally sees the complete release of the film as Leone envisioned, even if it is long after his passing, 30 years later and with the missing footage in substandard shape. Unnecessarily tampered with upon its original release to squeeze more money out of it, scathing reviews followed and efforts followed for a longer version to be released. However, this is the first time we can see it all and having seen the other versions, this one at 251 minutes is definitive, brilliant and about as great a film as Leone ever made.

Based on the book The Hoods by Harry Grey, the complex narrative traces the rise and fall of five young Jewish teens who become gangsters, crooks and thieves in Depression-era New York City though happenstance, opportunity and luck. The story gets especially interesting with the friendship of David Aaronson (played in later years by Robert DeNiro) and Max Bercovicz (James Woods in some of the best work of his career) who are great friends until a heist of a federal treasury building that David wants to skip seems to go wrong, getting Max and the gang killed. However, something else may have happened.

The film open as we join an older David in an opium den, cradled like a child at a dead end. Then, he thinks he hears or recognizes something and suddenly, someone (maybe more than one) have found him there and he is lucky enough to awake and escape. It is from there that the script goes between its various timelines and tells what really is an epic story of the rise of America from a darker side. This is very advanced, fancy storytelling that never fails and is compelling form the first scene. It also has plenty of mysteries, including how much of this David is imagining and how much of it is real, yet enough of it holds together that we know at least some truth is being told. I expect it is more.

The result is a gangster saga as sprawling at The Godfather, The Sopranos, Scarface, Prince Of The City, GoodFellas/Casino or any others in the genre, especially now that it has been saved as much as possible. Production design, costumes, sets and the way it is shot are exemplary, the music is great and the rest of the cast is as well including Burt Young, Joe Pesci, Tuesday Weld, Elizabeth McGovern, Treat Williams, Danny Aiello, William Forsythe, James Russo, a young Jennifer Connelly in earlier flashback sequences and Louise Fletcher in an interesting turn that was totally cut form the film until now.

The film never holds back on the sex, violence, vice, language and suspense. Some moments are so creepy, you'll be pleasantly surprised. One moment is so freaky towards the end that it seems to have influenced an important chunk of Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut (1999) in the best possible way. Gaining an increasingly better reputation over the years, there is no excuse to not recognize it as the masterwork it is. After much amazing work from the terrific Film Foundation, Warner and other partners, Once Upon A Time In America finally sees the light of day as Leone originally intended. Don't miss it!!!

Extras include excerpts from the documentary Once Upon A Time: Sergio Leone and Original Theatrical Trailers.

Michael Tuchner's Villain (1971) is one of the stronger British Gangster films from the late 1960s/early 1970s cycle that included the original Get Carter among others and has Richard Burton in one of the darkest performances of his career as the title character Vic Dakin, a murderous, woman-hating, gay gangster that wants everyone to be frightened of him and will stop at nothing to get wants he wants, when he wants it or else. Ian McShane is his bisexual lover who sleeps with many woman and Nigel Davenport is the cop who wants to stop him. He plans a serious heist that will only increase his money and power, but he has more enemies than ever.

I am impressed with how gutsy this all was and still is, still seems. Everyone is good in it and the script by the hit-and-miss team of Dick Clement & Ian La Frenais is some of the best work they ever turned out. Some points never worked, others hold up well, this is well shot (see more below) and is a gritty British big screen experience with ironic gloss often. Vic is supposed to be the mother-obsessed real life gangster Ronnie Kray, minus his equally deadly brother, but that liberty is somewhat forgivable. Ben Kingsley was trying to do what Burton was doing here in Sexy Beast (reviewed elsewhere on this site) to some degree of success, if not as deadly.

It is still a key gangster film few (especially fans of the genre in the U.S.) have seen. Nice to see it on an official DVD. T.P. McKenna, Donald Sinden, Joss Ackland, Cathleen Nesbitt, Elizabeth Knight, Brook Williams and Clive Francis also star.

There are sadly no extras, but this was roughly remade only a year later as Sitting Target, reviewed elsewhere on this site.

The newcomer on the list is Jim Taihutti's Wolf (2013), a Dutch entry about the title character (Marwan Kenzari) with a good younger brother he is trying to help, a father who is not happy with him, a mother who is powerless to do much about it and street friends up to no good including a best friend we join stealing motorcycles from a dealership in the middle of the night. After showing up a fighter at a local gym, its owner offers him the chance to make some serious, honest money fighting, but does he have the discipline to do it? Also, more of the criminal element is around including a Turkish gangster head who would like him to throw the fight.

Though we have seen some of this before, this is well done, consistent, with few off moments (a montage set to a bad Hip Hop song where the narrative practically stops while they enjoy selling and partying on the proceeds of some illegal drugs is a mistake) holds this back from being great, but it has enough moments that it deserves a wider audience. There is some comedy here too, not necessarily dark.

Extras include a Music Documentary, Making Of piece, Wolf Training by Marwan Kenzari, Original Theatrical Trailer, Music Video and Behind The Scenes featurette.

The 1080p 2.35 X 1 digital High Definition image on Elite is really nice and consistent throughout, looking as good as I have ever seen it, save that sometimes it seems the color range and light might be a bit more subdued than it should be in many shots versus how this film ought to look. Otherwise, you will be very surprised. The 1080p 1.85 X 1 digital High Definition image transfer on America has the newly added materials looking color and detailed-challenged, but that was the only condition they sadly survived in. Both films can show the age of the materials used, but are meant to be seen on a big screen and hold up extremely well on that front.

Director of Photography Philip H. Lathrop (Point Blank, the original Pink Panther, They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, The Americanization Of Emily (see the Blu-ray elsewhere on this site), The Driver) shot the film in real 35mm anamorphic Panavision, then it was processed in DeLuxe Color. Grain is just fine without being a problem as if it were second-generation and there are some interesting shots throughout.

Leone's longtime Director of Photography Tonino Delli Colli, A.I.C., delivers some of the greatest work of his career on America, even more apparent from the footage in rough shape, where you can see what he was going for with Leone and what a true loss the original footage in top shape actually is. Here is also an example of where the look is styled down, but intelligently, versus so many bad shoots (especially HD of late) that have no point. Amazing!

The anamorphically enhanced 2.35 X 1 image on Villain was lensed by Director of Photography Christopher Callis, B.S.C., who more than proved how he could push the scope from on Donen's Arabesque (1967, reviewed elsewhere on this site) and not that fancy, we still get our share of amazing and deceptively easy shots that most cameramen could not pull off. Also shot in real 35mm anamorphic Panavision and issued in three-strip, dye-transfer Technicolor, this copy is softer than I would have liked and looks more like a MetroColor print. This deserves a Blu-ray!

The anamorphically enhanced 1.85 X 1 black and white image on Wolf may be an HD shoot, but someone knew what they were doing and got it to look good, like Kodak Tri-X or Plus-X film, making it one of the best b/w HD shoots I have seen to date, if lacking detail and definition. Wonder how this would look in 1080p?

Both Blu-ray films were theatrical monophonic releases, with the DTS-HD MA (Master Audio) 1.0 Mono lossless mix on Elite a bit rougher and more strident than expected, despite the fact that the Isolated Music Score by the great Jerry Fielding is in stereo and sounds really good. The sound needs an upgrade if possible. The DTS-HD MA (Master Audio) 5.1 lossless mix on America does what it can with the original sound, having gone back to the original sound elements, it is a sometimes quiet film and some dialogue recording shows its age, even with some distortion. This was the last major epic film issued with monophonic sound, but Ennio Morricone's great score is here in stereo in the mix.

The lossy Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono on Villain is the weakest-sounding film here, with the audio sounding down a generation. I know this can sound better. The lossy Dolby Digital 5.1 on Wolf is not bad and joins America in the middle sonically of the three, with its surrounds kicking in at times and landing up quiet at others. Its budget limits show a bit.

You can order The Killer Elite limited edition Blu-ray among other exclusive releases while supplies last at this link:


and to order the Villain Warner Archive DVD, go to this link for it and many more great web-exclusive releases at:


- Nicholas Sheffo


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