Killer Elite (2011)
There’s a thin line between a bearable action adventure and action that’s so brainless no-one cares what’s going on nor why it’s going on. In this field, my yardstick is Spartan, written and directed by David Mamet and staring Val Kilmer. In the last decade, I don’t think there’s been a better film detailing the lies and deceptions upon which rest much of the work done by secret government agencies. More importantly, in Val Kilmer’s Scott, we have the ultimate professional who takes the time to work through all the chaos around him until he arrives at what passes for the truth in such films. It’s a kind of Sherlockian approach. When you have eliminated the impossible. . . So, here we go again with another of these conspiracy, wheels-within-wheels, spies fighting each other stories. Killer Elite has one of these overcomplicated plots with freelance assassins led by Robert De Niro as the cliché-named Hunter with Jason Statham as his loyal lieutenant on one side, the SAS in the middle, and a secretive group employing Clive Owen on the other.
I can honestly put my hand on my heart and swear I understood every part of the plot. This is not praise for the screenwriter, Matt Sherring or Ranulph Fiennes the original author of the supposedly truthful book The Feather Men. With an iron will and the help of the loud music, I simply managed to stay awake while the film was running. Whether you believe this true story, the Feather Men as an organisation is supposedly so secretive and so delicate in its interventions, its touch is as soft as a feather. Given this, it’s rather surprising to see how many bodies we have when we’re finished. Indeed, if there’s any common thread throughout this film, it’s the pervasive level of amateurishness. On all sides, no-one seems to sit back and appraise the situation. Hunter gets sold a job that no-one with any ethics should take, but he wants/needs the money (a mere $6 million) so takes it sight-unseen. When he later turns it down, Jason Statham is brought out of retirement. To free his ex-boss, he must complete the job. Yeh, yeh, where have we not seen this plot before.
He recruits two helpers. Davies (Dominic Purcell) whose English accent doesn’t fool anyone when he tries to wheedle information out of SAS men in pubs. He’s the ultimate klutz, getting noticed everywhere and eventually killing a few people before doing the ultimately stupid thing — going to a high-end brothel to celebrate the “official” kill. This is like a bank robber going out and spending money like it’s going out of fashion. It’s like sending up a flare to show where you are. The other elite killer (I’ll stop laughing soon, I promise) is Meier (Aden Young) whose hand shakes when he’s trying to use his electronic system to control a lorry from a moving car. Not surprisingly, he can’t defend himself properly when attacked and gets shot by his own driver who proves even more amateurish than him. Believe me, you couldn’t hope to find two more Keystone Cop helpers.
The SAS are variously shown as being crazed and, not surprisingly, paranoid. Offhand, I can’t think of anything less flattering. That they get mown down so easily by the clowns working for Jason Statham is the ultimate indignity. Playing point for the Feather Men is Clive Owen. He’s partially blind thanks to an accident on a mission. This has left him angry as his career with the SAS is ended. He does not display a stable personality and, frankly, it’s not credible he would be employed by an organisation favouring discretion. At every possible point, this man demonstrates his talent as a loose canon. Needless to say, he would be fired (and probably in a terminal way). That all this committee does for most of the film is to tell him not to interfere is ludicrous. Except, of course, that could be part of the conspiracy.
All of which leaves us with Jason Statham. His stubble is much in evidence again as he looks menacingly into the camera and then wades into another life-and-death situation. Those who know and love Mr. Statham will know it’s always death for the other guy(s). Except, this time, with Clive Owen getting equal billing, their two fights come out as a draw. Yet, here’s the thing. Quite early on, Mr. Statham follows Mr. Owen back to his cheap and scruffy flat. He knows his name and could, at any time, either talk to him as one professional to another to find out exactly what’s going on, or simply kill him. It’s not rational for Mr. Statham to leave Mr. Owen as a potential threat. Indeed, if they ever did try to talk properly, Mr. Statham would immediately recognise an unstable personality in his opponent and kill him to avoid complications. The only conversations they have are towards the end and are nothing more than an exchange of clichés.
So there we have it — a mess from start to finish. Yet, does anyone go to see a Jason Statham film for the plot or the witty dialogue. I suspect not. The target audience is likely to be male. Give them a little psychobabble background showing their hero as having a love interest to offset his attack of conscience when he finds himself pointing a gun at a young girl in the back of a car, and they’ll be happy with the fights even though, sad to say, they are not the best I’ve seen him do. There are the usual close-camera tricks in the hand-to-hand fights to cover up the likely problems in Clive Owen’s relative inexperience. There’s quite a lot of running and some driving in an attempt keep the action going. It’s the usual uninspiring stuff by numbers from Gary McKendry, who’s not the most experienced director in the pack. One final note: perhaps out of desperation, the love interest is Yvonne Strahovski who’s considered a “hot” babe — eye-candy for the young male audience to absorb. This leaves Robert De Niro as the only good thing in the film. He does at least have a little class and is not afraid to show it. More to the point, even at his more advanced age, he manages to fight well and look menacing if asked politely by the director. So this is not not a patch on Spartan, but if all you want is brainless action and a hot babe to ogle, Killer Elite is for you.