The very presence of Messrs. Statham (“The Transporter”), Owen (“The International”) and De Niro (“Heat”) together in a motion picture strongly indicates an action-packed, kaboom-riffic bonanza — in fact, that’s precisely what the trailers imply with their sequences of Statham and Owen beating the holy hell out of each other, set to “Rock You Like a Hurricane.” Well, watching “Killer Elite” is asking for Kung Pao Chicken and getting a California Roll instead: not exactly what was ordered and satisfies a completely different craving, but it’s still totally delicious.
At Quality 16 and Rave
There’s a special rung in hell reserved for marketing teams that grossly misrepresent their movies. “Killer Elite” is nothing like the retread of Every Jason Statham Movie Ever Made that it’s presented as — in reality, the narrative closely mimics Spielberg’s modern classic “Munich,” a taut, stirring, espionage drama inundated with political undertones.
Forget cat-and-mouse, the movie is more aptly described as a nonstop cat-and-cat hunt. Statham would be the first feline, tracking down and assassinating former SAS officers in order to rescue his friend and mentor (De Niro) from Omani royals (there’s a true-to-history backstory about all that). But he can’t just straight-up murder the louts; he has to make the deaths look like accidents, bolstering the film with even more delectable tension. Opposing him is Clive Owen, a former SAS officer who is furious that his bros are being picked off and thus tries to stop Statham from killing the rest of his bros.
Even with this promising premise, “Killer Elite” is a shrewd dramatic thriller trapped in a Jason Statham action vehicle. The bald, British badass’s requisites are all in place: a stupid backstory, stupid dialogue, a stupid love interest and a stupid scene where he chooses to give up his mercenary career after killing a man in front of his daughter (complete with a shot of Statham staring at his blood-stained hands, gag). Also crammed in are extravagant shootouts, Statham doing parkour and an intensely brutal brawl between Statham and Owen that, despite being well choreographed, don’t match the tone of the film and displace it into campiness.
Still, there are enough acting legs on the “Killer Elite” table to make up for the one broken off by Statham. Robert De Niro is shockingly decent, wielding weapons with convincing command and momentarily allowing audiences to forget the travesty that is his career over the past decade (“Little Fockers,” for a reminder). Dominic Purcell (TV’s“Prison Break”) plays the point man on Statham’s crew, owning his role with the charm and poise reminiscent of Tom Hardy’s character in “Inception”
But the man of the hour, the toast of the town, the belle of the ball is none other than Clive Owen, who plays the least-despisable antagonist in memory. Although his character is despicably underdeveloped, Owen dons a marvelous mustache (add “can pull off facial hair” to the list of reasons why Clive is God incarnate), and growls through his role as a warrior of virtue, fed up with the system but trying to protect his brotherhood. Owen appears to be the only actor aware of the gravity of the situation, creating a strange juxtaposition to Statham’s stupid antics.
Sans Statham and with a more serious tone, “Killer Elite” could have been something special — the rest of the cast was ready and waiting. There’s nothing elite about this movie, but it still has all the elements of a killer thriller.