The only way you could make a Jason Statham movie more preposterously macho would be to add Clive Owen as the bad guy, right? Well, if that sounds like heaven to you, prepare yourself for the battle of the glowering English thugs that is Gary McKendry’s fitfully successful new action movie “Killer Elite.” It’s not connected in any way to the James Caan/Robert Duvall movie “The Killer Elite” that Sam Peckinpah made, but it’s exactly the sort of story that I could see Peckinpah getting interested in. Guys and their complicated moral codes, the way loyalty drives people to extremes, the cost of violence over the course of a lifetime… all of these themes are present in the film written by McKendry and Matt Sherring based on the novel “The Feather Men” by Ranulph Fiennes.
The book was a nonfiction account of a vigilante group in England in the ’60s that solved crimes that the police ignored. There was a particular crime that they spent 14 years trying to solve, and that crime is the lynchpin that McKendry built his movie around. I’m not sure how much of the book is true or not true, but I’m going to guess that the film has largely fictionalized things while trying to also use that whole “based on a true story” thing has part of the hook of the film. Too much of this is too thematically constructed, too neat and perfect and planned out, and that’s fine when it’s a drama. As a “true story,” though, “Killer Elite” stretches credibility pretty far, and it’s one of those movies where I’m not completely sure I can recommend it.
In the film, we meet Danny Bryce (Statham), a mercenary who frequently works with Hunter (Robert De Niro). When something goes wrong on one of their assignments, Danny decides he wants out of the business. Familiar set-up, right? He wants to start a normal life with Anne (Yvonne Strahovski), who he knew when he was younger, and retire to his remote farm. That dream is threatened when Hunter is taken hostage and used as a bargaining tool, forcing Danny back into service. He ends up working for Sheikh Amr (Rodney Afif), who wants revenge for the death of his sons at the hands of British soldiers. He’s going to hold Hunter until Danny and his team manage to kill all four men, get their confessions on videotape, and cover the murders by making them look like accidents.
What Danny doesn’t realize is that the men he’s been assigned to kill are all being protected, and the main weapon of this underground group of retired military men is Spike (Clive Owen), a singularly-minded killer who is just as brutal and efficient as Danny. The two of them end up on a collision course, Danny determined to win Hunter’s freedom, Spike determined to stop him cold. The film is built as a series of set pieces, with Danny slowly working his way towards his goal and Spike gradually chipping away at figuring out the identity of his opponent.
McKendry, who was nominated for an Oscar for his short film “Everything In This Country Must,” directs this like a drama more than an action film, and the upside to that is that he doesn’t indulge in the typical shaky-cam overdone style that mars so many modern action films. He treats the action beats like character moments, and both Statham and Owen are good in the film. They repeatedly clash, and each time, it’s treated like a big deal, like these are the two best guys at this, and the power shifts in their fights from moment to moment, two cavemen struggling for superiority. The weak link in the cast, unfortunately, is De Niro, and there’s a moment in the film where he happily picks up a big bag of money that may have actually been an off-camera moment. In general, I feel like De Niro burned so bright when he was young and hungry that there’s nothing really left in there these days. He’s fine. He doesn’t bump into any furniture. He has a certain grizzled charisma. But he’s not the actor he once was, and there’s nothing he does in this film that any of a couple of dozen other character actors couldn’t do just as well.
The movie strips away support from each of the main characters until it really is a personal struggle between the two of them, and it builds to an ending that seems convenient, although satisfying. I don’t think “Killer Elite” is going to blow anyone away, but it’s a solid action movie with a slightly-smarter-than-average script, an upper-end movie on the Statham filmography, and a nice reminder that Clive Owen is one of the best cultured apes we’ve got in movies today. If you’re in the mood for some guilt-free ass-kicking, “Killer Elite” satisfies.
“Killer Elite” opens in theaters September 23, 2011.