A film review by Craig J. Koban October 13, 2011


2011, R, 105 mins.


Jason Statham: Danny / Clive Owen: Spike / Robert De Niro: Hunter / Dominic Purcell: Davies / Aden Young: Meier / Yvonne Strahovski: Anne

Directed by Gary McKendry / Written by Matt Sherring, based on Ranulph Fiennes' nonfiction book "The Feather Men"

In many ways, KILLER ELITE is both just what I was expecting and somewhat what I was not expecting out of a Jason Statham action film.  

We get the typically stoic, gravel voiced, and granite jawed star mowing his way rather effortlessly through an endless barrage of global baddies out to kill him, as one would expect out of the umpteenth Eurotrash thrillers that he has populated – to reasonable success – over the last few years.  Unlike those films, however, KILLER ELITE is grounded in a fact-based (so it claims) storyline that is at least more ambitious than your typical Statham orgy of wanton carnage.  KILLER ELITE works better perhaps at its shoot-‘em-up accoutrements than it does with its sobering socio-political commentary, which essentially means that the resulting film is modestly and generically fun as a pure action thriller, but as far as exploring its real world implications, it’s far from elite status. 

And maybe that’s just a-okay.  Most fans of Statham don’t eagerly attend his films hoping to have some deep and penetrating insights in the human condition or worldwide affairs.  Nah, I think we go to them for their adrenaline-induced, hyper-macho, show-no-mercy, and juicily pulpy action intrigue, and on those expected levels, KILLER ELITE is a fairly solid, if not a bit routine and bland, action film.  The film is more consistently enjoyable for seeing its rough and tough battled hardened characters duke it out while uttering perfunctory, cookie cutter dialogue.  When the film tries to dig deep into its real world implications – in its case, ones that meant something in the early 1980’s – the film kind of stumbles.  There’s an odd disconnect in KILLER ELITE between being a hardboiled, blood-splattered, and fever pitched grindhouse affair and a shrewd and topical message film with an agenda and something meaningful to say about how covert ops and governments conduct their affairs.  If you’re willing to ignore its failure in the latter category and accept its decent success in the former, than you should be pleased with the overall film. 

KILLER ELITE is, as they say, ripped from the headlines: its based on a 1991 novel by British adventurer Sir Ranulph Fiennes, a book that caused considerable controversy at its time of publication regarding claims as to whether it was actually based of true events.  As to whether KILLER ELITE – which, incidentally, has nothing to do with the 1975 CIA action flick by Sam Peckinpah – is faithful to the book or, in turn, accurate to actual events that have transpired I cannot say, other than to say that the film certainly thinks that the events it portrays actually happened.  It seems that when any film “based on a true story” throws up those obligatory prelude title cards that state just that then it must be true…right?  Then again, the film could be pure hogwash-make-believe, but never mind. 

Anyhoo', this “true” story (wink, wink) is set in 1980 and opens with a muscle-bound hired hitman named Danny Bryce (Statham, in all of his Statham-esque glory) and his posse, Davies (Dominic Purcell) and Hunter (Robert De Niro, refreshingly absconding from lame and witless comedies) traveling to Mexico where they ambush a convoy.   Regrettably, Danny dispatches with a his prey right in front of his young son, which affects the hardened governmental assassin so much that he decides, as sooooooo many movie assassins have over the decades, to retire because the business is getting to him.  Danny decides to retire to a peaceful life in Australia where he gets cozy with a new neighbor (the fetchingly gorgeous Yvonne Strahovski) and hopes to shed his former covert life once and for all. 



Fast forward a year later and Danny receives a package with a picture of Hunter, who looks haggard and weak and appears to have been held captive for quite some time.  He also gets a plane ticket in the package, and despite telling himself that he’s “done” with the past, he nonetheless decides that his loyalties to his fallen comrade is enough to persuade him to rescue him.  He travels to Oman where he meets a mysterious figure known as The Agent (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), a man that gave Hunter a lucrative contract, but since he failed at it he has been captured and held by his employer, Sheik Amir.  Danny then meets the Sheik, who is dying, but still wants Danny to kill three former SAS agents that murdered his sons.  If Danny does so, then the Sheik will release Hunter.  Here’s the tricky catch: Danny must videotape confessions from all of them and make their deaths look accidental.  While Danny assembles his own personal A-Team for the tough job at hand, his efforts are complicated by Spike (Clive Owen), a SAS man that builds his own team to stop Danny’s. 

The one simple pleasure of KILLER ELITE is seeing Statham and Owen constantly battle wits and, in one key brawl scene that’s fantastically staged, each other.  Director Gary McKendry, making his debut, does a reasonably good job at staging sequences like this in all of their head and groin smashing glory and seems to have a good feel for the rest of the film's pedigree of explosions, gun battles, car chases, rooftop foot pursuits, grisly interrogations, and steely eyed stand-offs.  Statham and Owen make for a very effective one-two punch in the film, seeing as they both appear utterly and endlessly unflappable in the face of imminent danger.  They are both so lethally cool and collected that there are times where you are left wondering which party will emerge successfully.  On those levels, KILLER ELITE offers up ample intrigue and agreeable visceral mayhem. 

Yet, for as badass and well orchestrated as the action is in the film, the rest of the period specific storyline is of the decided hit-or-miss variety.  The film never does a thoroughly decent job of immersing us in its early 80’s settings (aside from some props here and there, it just as well could have been set in the present) and the overall storyline is frankly confusing at times.  When the script is not really clicking on all intended narrative cylinders, we have to sit through some punishingly conventional dialogue, like “You can’t run from who you are” and “I’m done with killing” or, my personal favourite, “Killing is easy, living with it is the hard part.”  Ouch.  Then there is the film’s love interest for Danny that seems so woefully tacked on and ill-defined that the screenplay sometimes forgets that she even exists.  There is much to appreciate in seeing the luminous façade of Strahovski in the film, but beyond that, she’s delegated to pure window-dressing mode as the beleaguered one-note girlfriend. 

De Niro is the other thorny problem here.  It’s great to see him go back to something that does not have the word “Focker” in its title, and the veteran actor has some nice moments in the film, like when he easily disarms a much younger opponent late in the proceedings and has a confrontation with The Agent, but beyond that De Niro’s heart never seems invested in this role, outside of receiving a payday.  Even more disappointing is that, considering the film's advertising, he occupies only about a third of the screen time, which means he’s essentially pared down to a glorified cameo here.  KILLER ELITE may not know how to harness all of its talent as well as it could have and really fumbles and teeters around its somewhat long running time with telling a cohesive story, but as a visceral action thriller first and foremost - and not much more - it works.   I left the theatre feeling empty, but oddly satisfied. 

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