American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
Sam Peckinpah's "The Killer Elite" is directed and acted with a certain nice style, but it puts us through so many convolutions of the plot that finally we just don't care. After "Three Days of the Condor" and all the other variations on the CIA betrayal theme, we've been here before. The guys who are doublecrossing each other stand around talking about divided loyalties and professionalism doing their best to sound bitter and cynical and somehow idealistic and it'd be a relief if they'd just shoot each other and get it over with.
The movie's about an agent (James Caan) who's double-crossed by an old friend (Robert Duvall) who tries to kill him. The assassination doesn't succeed, but Caan's left elbow and knee are shattered, and he spends the first half hour of the movie walking around like the $6 million man with a blown fuse. He's game, though, and takes karate lessons so he can learn how to turn his cane into an instrument of vengeance. Then he gets a call to take another job.
The job involves machinations so complicated that I wonder if I've got it right. As nearly as I could tell, the leader of a dissenting Japanese political organization has been marked for assassination, and the CIA wants to protect him until he gets out of the United States. When he gets back to Japan, he'll be killed anyway, but through some process of deep CIA thinking, that won't matter. So Caan puts together a team made up of one agent who's retired and another one who's gunhappy, and their job is to smuggle the leader, his daughter and followers out of San Francisco and to an offshore rendezvous.
Now it just so happens (it always does at this point in spy movies) that Duvall has been hired to kill the Japanese leader and that both Duvall and Caan are being paid by the same third party. Why? Why spend good money on both sides of the same fight. The movie never gets around to answering that question, although Duvall and Caan have a final meeting at which they talk about money and how it's all only a job, and Caan in particular is pretty good at the obligatory irony.