“Killer Elite,” the new Jason Statham/Clive Owen/Robert De Niro testosterone tsunami, claims to have been inspired by a true story, and goes about setting the action in the early 1980s as a way of justifying its supposed historical validity. The problem, of course, is that the movie is so silly, so two-dimensionally cartoonish, that you don’t buy, for a second, that anything depicted actually took place (the 1991 book on which the film is based, originally sold as a “true adventure,” has been debunked and similarly derided). As a junky action movie, it passes muster, but for the historical thriller it pretends to be, it fails miserably.
Our hero is Jason Statham’s Danny Bryce, the member of an elite group of assassins, who gives up the globetrotting villainy for a quiet life at his farm in Australia. (Yes, they’re asking us to believe Statham, with his Dickensian street urchin accent, is Australian. It’s the first in a series of large logical concessions.) But his quiet life of building sheds and tending to farm animals and making moon eyes at his former classmate (Yvonne Strahovski, from the TV series “Chuck“) is interrupted when his former partner, Hunter (De Niro), is kidnapped by a Dubai sheikh after Hunter refuses to complete a dangerous mission for him.
The Sheikh wanted Hunter (now Bryce) to slay members of the Special Air Services (SAS) as revenge over the death of his sons during the Oman conflict. Bryce says, “Thanks but no thanks,” and tries to bust Hunter out of jail, in an action sequence that would be way more exciting if the events were so telegraphed, and all of the story beats so rote and by the numbers. We’ve all seen this movie a thousand times, usually on late night cable, so the filmmakers (writer Matt Sherring and Gary McKendry) could have had a little more fun with the premise, made it leaner and meaner; elite and killer. But instead it’s just dull – Bryce begrudgingly accepts the job, reassembles his old team of assassins (which includes a Dominic Purcell) and tries to get the job done quickly and efficiently, so his friend and ex-partner can go free (and he can return to making moon eyes in Australia).
The wrinkle is Clive Owen’s character, Spike, a shadowy figure who, like much of the cast, sports a ridiculously “period” moustache, and works for an organization called The Feather Men. The Feather Men are all former SAS who have risen to political or commercial prominence and who now meet in oak-paneled rooms like the bad guys in “The X-Files,” plotting not only world events but the safety and security of their own. Spike has figured out what Bryce and his crew are up to (in part, one imagines, because Purcell’s facial hair is so ludicrously out of place that he’d be easy to spot anywhere) and intends to put a stop to it.
What this means is that there are a bunch of murder sequences, both simplistic and wildly convoluted, that all play out like a bargain basement version of “Munich.” Occasionally these sequences carry with them a kicky thrill, like them fashioning a blunt mallet out of one of the SAS member’s shower tiles (since everything is supposed to look like an accident). There’s also a zippy-enough car chase involving a remote-controlled truck and a shocking moment where a character gets run over by a bus like something out of one of the “Final Destination” movies. Oftentimes the movie will somehow get above the absurdity of the plot (seemingly everyone, even hotel clerks, check in with the Feather Men – how large is their network, exactly?) based purely on the propulsive force of the action. It’s easy to forget about the engraved business cards the Feather Men flash (real secretive organization you got there, guys) when Statham so joyously punches people in the balls.
But as a whole, the movie doesn’t really work. With its somewhat splintered narrative and multiple locations, “Killer Elite” is clearly aiming for an air of international exoticism. Sequences take place in the Middle East and Paris and England, but it’s achingly clear that the whole thing was shot in Australia, with crummy sets standing in for worldly locales. Another problem is the complete lack of character traits, much less development. By this point Statham has become the go-to guy for macho stoicism, but here they’ve stripped him of personality; he’s neither funny nor particularly sexy. But he can kick people in the balls well enough. Owen, ostensibly the piece’s villain, is shown in his cruddy apartment, a highchair near the table, but the movie doesn’t even suggest a personal life – is there a child? A wife? – instead choosing to envision him as another determined cipher, yet another member of the titular elite. Even less can be said about De Niro’s role, another in his recent string of “work for two weeks, collect a large paycheck” performances (see also: “Machete,” “Limitless,” etc.)
The movie, which bizarrely is receiving red carpet treatment at Toronto, would also have been a lot more fun if you could actually make out what is going on. The film is shot in a typically epileptic style, less Paul Greengrass than “Homicide: Life on the Streets,” the camera veering this way and that, a jagged collection of images instead of a cohesive whole. While there is something to be said about the sense of immediacy this style lends, there are also moments, like the one in which Statham is tied to a chair and still kicking the shit out of people, when you practically beg for the director (and cinematographer Simon Duggan) to pull the camera back. If Jason Statham is tied to a chair and beating people unconscious, you kind of want to see it. Instead, he’s lost in the muddy photography and an endless series of cuts, which is a shame, because that could have been really, really cool.
And really, really cool is what “Killer Elite” should have been – it’s a period action movie with a bunch of people who, under the right circumstances, could have been perfect for the material (see Statham’s underrated 1970s-set heist movie “The Bank Job“). Instead, you get a bunch of lousy “locations,” wooden acting, an absurd plot, and uniformly terrible facial hair. As something you stumble across a few years from now, on home video or in the backwoods of your cable spectrum, it’s perfectly passable. As the searing indictment of a government agency run amok and the secretive killers battling it out behind closed doors, it fails spectacularly. All in all, it’s a pretty even split. [C+]