Killer Elite (United States/Australia, 2011)September 22, 2011
Despite having a perfect cast for a title like Killer Elite, Gary McKendry's feature debut comes across as little more than a generic Jason Statham movie with two high-profile guest stars. However, while Clive Owen and Robert De Niro add some star power to this otherwise unassuming motion picture, their presence does not stitch together the seams evident in a hit-or-miss screenplay nor does it enliven the safe and somewhat static approach embraced by McKendry as he feels his way. Killer Elite contains numerous action sequences but too little compelling connective tissue for it to be more than a high octane diversion. This should have been released during the summer.
Killer Elite opens with a caption that informs us it is "based on a true story," as if that somehow excuses some of the short-cuts and coincidences. In fact, the factuality of the source material, Ranulph Fiennes' The Feather Men, has been challenged and, in some cases, debunked. There's probably a kernel of truth lurking somewhere beneath the surface in Killer Elite, but to accept it as anything more than a motion picture interpretation of a largely fictional novel would be a mistake.
The story, which transpires in 1981, concerns the revenge plot of a sheik in Omar who hires professional assassin Danny (Statham) to kill the British SAS officers responsible for his sons' deaths. As collateral, the sheik captures Danny's partner, Hunter (De Niro), who will be released only upon completion of the triple killing. To make matters more difficult, Danny is required to obtain videotaped confessions from each man and to make the murders seem like accidents. He is aided by the two other members of his crew - burly Davies (Dominic Purcell) and technically savvy Meier (Aden Young) - and opposed by an ex-SAS crack operative named Spike (Owen).
The story is pieced together in a straightforward, somewhat predictable fashion. Once Spike becomes involved, things get a more interesting since it introduces a degree of gamesmanship. We are never given sufficient details to savor Danny's work - the killings are handled expeditiously and the way in which they are presented feels almost like a shorthand outline of a much longer draft. There are also murky backroom individuals whose motives are as shady as the venue in which they meet. All of this hints at a vastly more complex story than the one that evolves on screen.
Killer Elite, like just about every other Jason Statham film, is fights and shoot-outs and car chases. There's not appreciably more here. Statham is his usual dour, square-jawed self. Danny has developed a killer's remorse, but that surfaces only when it's convenient, and he has a love interest (played by the willowy Yvonne Strahovski, whose TV stardom results in her having more scenes than is necessary). These attempts are made to flesh out the character, but they're only partially successful. In the end, this is about Statham and Owen trying to out-badass each other. Kind of fun, but not as fulfilling as one might hope. For the most part, De Niro remains on the sidelines - his character is kept in confinement for about 2/3 of the movie. He gets in on the fun at the beginning and the end.
Had Killer Elite been made with B-list co-stars instead of Owen and De Niro, it would have been easy to lump together with other Statham vehicles like The Transporter and Crank. It's a little better grounded than either of those earlier movies, but it is essentially gunning for the same audience. The problem is that, having spent the money to hire Owen and De Niro, it's incumbent upon McKendry to give them something interesting to do, and that really doesn't happen. Both of these men are good actors but too often they agree to appear in subpar material for the paycheck (this has been increasingly true of De Niro). Killer Elite is just another example. There's enough action to keep viewers awake and moderately interested, but the lack of a compelling back story and the failure to do more than paint-by-numbers character development makes Killer Elite unfulfilling and anything but "elite."
Killer Elite (United States/Australia, 2011)
Cast: Jason Statham, Clive Owen, Robert De Niro, Dominic Purcell, Aden Young, Yvonne Strahovski
Screenplay: Gary McKendry & Mike Sherring, based on The Feather Men by Ranulph Fiennes
Cinematography: Simon Duggan, Alain Duplantier
Music: Reinhold Heil, Johnny Klimek
U.S. Distributor: Open Road