Jason Statham as the reluctant hit man lured back into action? Check. Fight scenes that are a chaotic blur of grunting, grappling and gouging? Check. Flash cuts to a comely love interest pining for our hero half a world away? You betcha.
Though first-time director Gary McKendry supposedly had real-life incidents to draw from, and a respected novel (The Feather Men by Ranulph Fiennes) supplying his narrative, The Killer Elite (no relation to the 1975 Sam Peckinpah film) is just another middle-of-the-road, choppily edited, unsatisfying mess of an action movie. Think of it as The Killer Mediocre.
Set in the early '80s, the film follows Danny Bryce (Statham), a mercenary who gets fed up with the violence and bloodshed of his profession and retreats to the Australian outback to court a lady friend. That retirement lasts for all of five minutes because his mentor, Hunter (Robert De Niro), is kidnapped by an Arab sheik. Danny must now complete the assignment Hunter tried to skip out on — tracking down and killing three former SAS soldiers who murdered the sheik's sons. Unfortunately, Danny runs afoul of Spike (Clive Owen), a retired SAS officer who acts as an enforcer for the shadowy "Feather Men," and is dedicated to protecting his former comrades in arms. Chase scenes, fights and cat-and-mouse scenarios ensue.
For its first 10 minutes, The Killer Elite demonstrates real action film panache. After that, however, it's all downhill. The script, co-written by McKendry and Matt Sherring (a first feature for both), is complicated without being complex, jumping from one location to the next, pulling in two-dimensional side players, explaining its geopolitics with finger paint subtlety, and, most tragically, failing to develop its lead characters or plot motivations. The movie is mostly a series of haphazardly connected set pieces, some of which excite, most of which fall flat.
Though nothing falls quite as hard as the dialogue. From an opening conversation about iguana tacos to a cringe-inducing explanation for how the Feather Men got their name (I dare you not to chuckle), McKendry and Sherring display almost no facility for screenwriting. And though The Killer Elite sells itself on its star power, the plotting goes to great lengths to keep its A-list trio apart. De Niro puts in roughly 15 minutes of total screen time, just enough to display a little maniacal twinkle. Owen doesn't show up until the 30-minute mark and, except for a decently staged brawl in a hospital, lends his overqualified talents to an underwhelming role. Each of the stars puts in a perfectly serviceable performance, but their characters are nearly impossible to care about. Only Dominic Purcell, as an unabashed thug of an assassin, makes any kind of impression. Or maybe it's just his muttonchops.
Though far from incompetent, McKendry's direction is equally scattershot, with murky visuals, awkward dramatic beats, and noisy action sequences. In the end, it's hard to view The Killer Elite as anything more than an opportunity to put three tough guy actors on a movie poster and wait for the box office dollars to roll in. I suspect they won't.
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