Action-film fans will find plenty to like in Killer Elite – there’s no shortage of bang-bang/shoot-shoot in its 105 minutes, not to mention one epic testicular punch-out in a hospital operating room between Jason Statham and Clive Owen. But the rest of us? Not so much.
To be sure, first-time director Gary McKendry keeps things moving at an adrenalized pace, even through thickets of flashbacks. But this is precisely Killer Elite’s major problem: motion at the expense of emotion.
Loosely based on Ranulph Fiennes 1991 “factional” bestseller, The Feather Men, the film has many instances where it could have savoured the ambiguities, ironies and ethical cul-de-sacs embedded in its myriad twists and turns. Instead, McKendry plays it by formula, serving up the now-de-rigueur regime of car chases, explosions, oh-so-clever murder schemes, slugfests and clichés masquerading as the soul of wisdom.
It’s a movie in which such lines as “Someone has to do the dirty work” and “You can’t run away from who you are” are delivered with uninflected seriousness. And whatever quiet interludes there are are used less to elaborate character and motivation than as cursory premises for additional brutality and bandages.
Of course, could it have been otherwise when you’ve cast Jason Statham in the lead? The guy’s machismo incarnate, all verbal constipation and coiled containment with a three-day five o’clock shadow. Here he plays Danny Bryce, an assassin-for-hire par excellence who suffers a spasm of conscience during a hit in Mexico. Retiring to the quiet of rural Australia, he becomes smitten with a gorgeous tomboy (Maxim cover girl Yvonne Strahovski, used here mostly as window-dressing) only to be lured back into the killing game when his mentor and friend (a very relaxed Robert De Niro) is imprisoned by a cancer-ridden sheik with only six months to live.
To free his pal, Bryce is ordered to find and kill the former British Special Forces agents who eliminated three of the sheikh’s sons during a Cold War tussle in Oman. As De Niro languishes in the Middle East, Bryce proceeds to assemble a cold-blooded crew, a sort of Kings of Pain, as the implacable instrument of the sheik’s revenge. In doing so, however, Bryce crosses paths with Spike Logan (a relentlessly intense Clive Owen, sporting a pert mustache), an ex-SAS agent, blind in one eye, who’s part of a powerful, shadowy organization charged with protecting decommissioned agents like him from avengers like Bryce.
In short order, of course, the viewer realizes Spike and Danny aren’t so much antagonists as mirror images of each other, twin sons of seemingly different mothers. The question then becomes, Are these lunkheads ever going to realize that in playing Incredible Hulk vs. The Thing, they’re only pawns in a larger, more sinister game?
There’s nothing terribly wrong, finally, with Killer Elite, which had its world premiere 13 days ago at the Toronto International Film Festival . Statham and Owen are nicely paired, De Niro’s restrained, and action buffs will indubitably take comfort in the predictability and familiarity of the genre’s tropes. Yet for all its intimations of novelistic richness, it’s a movie that settles for being a big-budget comic book. Pow-pow-pow!
- Directed by Gary McKendry
- Written by Matt Sherring
- Starring Jason Statham, Clive Owen, Robert De Niro
- Classification: 14A