Hey, do you like those action movies where guys talk tough and shoot each other? Then buckle up for Killer Elite, because that’s exactly what you’re going to get. It’s all apparently based on a true story, but don’t worry too much about this being some sort of high-octane history lesson.
That stuff is just a backdrop to give the illusion of the film having some sort of artistic aspiration. No, this is standard men-on-a-mission fair with Jason Statham at his most Jason Stathamy, killing people and growling out one-liners with a certain level of conscience. He is a nice guy after all; just a nice guy who is great at killing people.
Statham plays a hired mercenary, because of course he does. He opens the film on a mission with his long-time contract-killing buddy Robert DeNiro, and promises that it will be his last job. Of course, it isn’t. Bobby D. gets kidnapped, and in order to set him free, Statham is going to have to kill a collection of former British soldiers to appease a sheik of Omen as part of a complicated oil deal. He’s got to make the deaths look like accidents, but rather quickly a SAS officer played by Clive Owen figures out what’s what and starts chasing down Statham. What’s interesting about the plot is that it’s all MacGuffin (Alfred Hitchcock’s old term for something that every character desires that’s meaningless beyond moving the plot forward). No one actually cares about the oil plot, it’s just an excuse for everyone to try to kill each other.
That device works pretty damn well in a movie of this sort. There’s really very little screen time spent between action scenes, and most of it either involves planning violence or macho posturing. Fortunately, first-time director Gary McKendry has the current king of macho posturing at his disposal: the great Jason Statham. When it comes to these sorts of movies, no one does it better. Statham can kick ass with the best of them and lends credibility to even the most cringe-worthy dialogue scenes. The only unfortunate thing about Statham’s career is that he didn’t arrive on the scene 10-15 years earlier. He’s the biggest action star now, but the genre is not the bread and butter of Hollywood like it used to be. Clive Owen is a smart counterpart for Statham as both actors are equally capable of playing action heroes and villains, and in Killer Elite their characters walk a fine line between the two sides of the coin (and really, Statham only comes out as the good guy because he’s the protagonist). DeNiro is perfectly fine in his grizzled veteran role, but this type of movie just feels beneath an actor of his ability. Don’t get me wrong, I’d rather see him in Killer Elite than another Fockers movie, I just miss Robert DeNiro the character actor and I’m getting a little tired of Robert DeNiro the movie star.
McKendry handles the action scenes well and pulls off a couple of dooseys. There are some ludicrous action scenes that veer pretty over the top for a movie purported to be based in reality, but beyond the “based on a true story” title card it’s pretty clear that Killer Elite takes place in the elastic reality of dumb action movies. The only thing that really drags down the otherwise unrelenting movie is a completely unnecessary love interest for Statham, who was clearly crammed into the already-long screenplay at the last minute. She’s in no way connected to the action, she’s just there to make Statham’s cold killer seem more empathetic. She only appears on screen when Statham thinks longingly about her in flashback or needs to protect her from afar, and her scenes grind the movie to a complete halt every 20 minutes or so in a way that really derails the narrative.
While Killer Elite may boast some pretty explosions and entertaining action-star shenanigans, make no mistake this is all fairly dumb entertainment. The political backdrop is merely self-important window-dressing that’s there purely to set the action into motion. Cheesy dialogue will make you groan constantly, and when you walk out of the theater the entire experience will fade out of your memory just as quickly as Jason Statham can speed away from a crime scene. It’s not a great movie. However, if you like action flicks with real stunts and genuine movie stars, it fits the bill. Think of it as the final summer popcorn movie before the self-important fall awards season looms into view. If you need to turn your brain off for two hours and watch some shit go boom, you could do way worse. However, if your brain will definitely be turned on the entire time, you’ll probably figure out that it’s a pretty empty experience pretty early on. Approach with caution, but enjoy.