Killer Elite begins by stressing that what on the surface appeared to be little more than a run-of-the-mill Jason Statham-Clive Owen action flick is in fact a serious evocation of the chaotic geopolitical scene circa 1980, and based on a true story. Naively, I felt a twinge of eager anticipation. Could this actually be a serious globe-trotting thriller, a chance for Statham to showcase some dramatic range?
Not so much.
Gary McKendry’s movie, based on the novel The Feather Men by Sir Ranulph Fiennes, is in fact only dubiously based on fact at all (there’s been an ongoing controversy over its claim to be a “true adventure” since its publication in 1991).
Beyond that, the flick is basically the full-throttle machismo fest that’s the natural outcome when Statham and Owen get top billing on the same film, with Robert De Niro checking in for good measure. There’s butt-kicking in Oman, France and England, with hilariously idyllic Australian fantasies interspersed throughout. The picture entertains, at times legitimately and at others in a cheesy, ’80s action sort of way. The tough-as-nails stars, however, imbue the narrative with more credibility than would have Schwarzenegger or Stallone.
Statham plays arguably the most elite of all elite killers, the mysterious Danny. He’s sick of murder, however, and wants nothing more than to build his rural Australian home while romancing the beautiful, horse-riding Anne (Yvonne Strahovski). Naturally, just when he thought he was out he’s thrust back in by an Omani sheik (Rodney Afif), who has kidnapped Danny’s mentor (De Niro) and won’t release him until Danny kills the highly-trained British soldiers that killed the sheik’s sons during the Dhofar Rebellion.
Might as well forget all that, though, and trust that Killer Elite transforms into the expected mano-a-mano affair pitting Statham against Owen, who plays a secret agent pursuing him. There’s lots of posturing and plotting, spying in parking lots and drive ways, machine gun violence and brutal fisticuffs, and elaborate killing set-pieces as Danny sets about his work.
This is fun stuff, well-staged by McKendry and driven by the leads’ vivid rage. The action scenes have a brisk, tight feel; bodies careen through space with the fluidity and confidence of a filmmaker unafraid of longer takes. The stars are very, very angry, as per their general customs, but they play it well. Their shared ferocity brings a crucial intensity to the production, which is enhanced by a supporting cast that also includes the spirited Dominic Purcell. The single-mindedness with which each individual character pursues his individual mission commands the audience’s attention, even as the plot lags.
Killer Elite isn’t a groundbreaking portrait of global corruption or a penetrating, soulful depiction of the burdens of killing someone, despite Danny’s assertion that “living with it is hard.” If this story actually happened, it sure didn’t happen like this. But as a B-grade action picture, it delivers the goods.
The Upside: There’s some good action here, and leads Jason Statham and Clive Owen bring a lot of credibility to the story.
The Downside: At times, the movie gets almost irredeemably goofy.
On the Side: Robert De Niro’s appearance here continues the legend’s slide into general hackdom, though he does get to beat the crap out of some people.