As a tale of wearied mercenaries, Killer Elite is the meathead version of Ronin.
Sure, it’s clotted with complicated plot threads (and allegedly based on a true story), but that’s just cover for a series of cock-punching throwdowns. Setting aside The Bank Job, the Crank films and the remake of Death Race, is there really much more to reasonably expect from a Jason Statham vehicle? I’m not slagging The Stath. If you put a gun to my head and asked me to name six of his characters, well, you’d just have to kill me with something else, I guess.
Killer Elite certainly adds to Statham’s combat showreel — namely a scene where he acrobatically headbashes fools while tied to a chair. It’s also just smart enough to cast Clive Owen in a part shrewdly written more as “foe” than “bad guy.” But apart from the action, the rest of Killer Elite is weak tea: It is, after all, a movie about killers in which one is named Hunter.
Statham goes by the far less intimidating Danny, but don’t let that fool you. He’s a stone-cold contract killa. But after a 1979-set prologue in which a job goes explosively wrong — and his merc buddy Hunter (Robert De Niro) saves Danny’s life — Danny excuses himself from the game. Cut to a year later, when Danny receives word Hunter is being held captive by Amr (Rodney Afif), a sheikh in Oman. It seems Hunter upset Amr by agreeing to a $6 million assassination he couldn’t finish. Danny swore he was done with killing. But, as one actor paid to keep a straight face responds, maybe killing isn’t done with him.
It turns out there’s a good reason Hunter balked as the bagman: Amr wants vengeance on British special-forces operatives who killed three of his sons. And they’re bad dudes. Because of his sons’ deaths, Amr has been banned from his tribe and hopes revenge will let his surviving son return there to oversee lucrative oil deals.
To repay the favor to Hunter and finish the job, Danny recruits his old team (Aden Young and Prison Break’s Dominic Purcell, looking just like Lemmy of Motörhead). But his activities draw the attention of Spike (Owen), a former British soldier who’s now in the employ of “the Feather Men” — a cabal of paunchy old Brits who ordered the slaughter of Amr’s sons and wouldn’t mind killing Danny and his crew. Although Danny and Spike eventually duel in a knockdown, drag-out brawl, it’s not long before they form a tenuous treaty to sever puppet strings controlling them both.
Director Gary McKendry fares well with the action in his feature-length debut; if you made a drinking game out of its fishtailing foreign sedans, everyone in the room would pass out. But rookie screenwriter Matt Sherring creates more characters than the film has reasonable space to hold.
After making her name as take-charge Sarah on Chuck, Yvonne Strahovski is embarrassingly defanged as Statham’s soft-edged love interest. And De Niro? He’s got nothing else to do by the end but make grandfatherly moony eyes at his pal’s gal. Plus, Sherring leaves no cornball musings about murder behind. To wit, the following:
“Shit happens when you play in the deep end of the pool.”
“He was lying.”
“How do you know?”
“His lips were moving.”
“He knew what he was doing when he joined the club.”
“The killing club.”
Killer Elite sticks to the ribs when it sticks to the simple skullduggery. Whenever it strives for warrior poetry, it’s more like a Nantucket-esque limerick scribbled in a London pub’s pisser.