Managing Editor; Dallas, Texas (@peteramartin)

What kind of action picture would you conjure up if you had Jason Statham, Clive Owen, and Robert De Niro at your disposal? Killer Elite features routine action that's enlivened by the performances of its three headliners. Yet the exigencies of the plot keep the stars (mostly) separate, so the film breaks down to a series of sequences alternating between "Statham does this" and then "Owen does that," with De Niro absent for a very long stretch.

When Statham and De Niro appear together in the opening scenes, it makes for a good deal of fun, with the two veterans trading insults and dispensing wisecracks. As you might expect if you've ever seen any of his films, Statham is playing the same big-screen character that he's developed into an established commodity over the past decade: The laconic loner who keeps to himself but is incredibly loyal to his friends, few as they may be, and faithful to one beautiful woman. The character is in peak physical form, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, and handle any weapon ever invented. It's a pleasant, dependable character, one who doesn't take himself too seriously but always takes his work seriously. And his work often involves a secret intelligence agency, usually forces him to drive sports cars at high speed, and always requires killing bad guys without remorse.

Killer Elite claims to be based on a true story, and is set in the early 1980s, but Statham plays the same character anyway. (You'd think he'd at least grow some hair on his head or, failing that, shave the stubble off his face to look different, but no.) De Niro is one of his colleagues; their team has been charged with an explosive mission, but when Statham sees that a little girl is involved, he backs away, as does De Niro. This leads to repercussions, and Statham decides to "retire" to a farm in Australia, where his neighbor just happens to be the beautiful Yvonne Strahovski (from U.S. TV show "Chuck"). She likes her men tall, bald, and mysterious, and he likes women, so they're a perfect match.

Time passes and Statham is pressed back into service to rescue De Niro, who has blown a mission and is being held for ransom by a dying sheik in Oman, in the Middle East. When Statham arrives to save the day, he learns that to secure De Niro's release, he must complete his mission: kill the three SAS soldiers responsible for the death of the sheik's older son, a guerilla commander.


It's a distasteful business, and it won't be easy, but Statham agrees, out of loyalty to his friend, and recruits two super-tough agency-trained assassins to help him. (Dominic Purcell sinks his teeth into his role as the more boisterous of the two.) Statham flatly refuses his share of the multimillion dollar payment promised by the sheik for proof that the SAS men are dead. Statham and his team pull off the first murder efficiently, but that raises an alarm bell for a shadowy group of ex-SAS men who are primarily concerned with protecting their own interests. They dispatch one of their own, Clive Owen, to investigate.

Owen rarely shows up in action movies -- The International comes immediately to mind -- but he slips easily into the role, a bluff-talking, efficient killer himself, whose only problem is his conscience. He's aware that the British government disavowed any knowledge of the Oman affair, and accepts that soldiers follow their orders, but that doesn't keep him from chafing when he suspects that grave injustices toward his fellow soldiers are in the process of being committed.

On his own, Owen is lively and dynamic. On his own, Statham is stoic and deadly. When they confront one another, however, the sparks don't fly as far or as high as you might hope. Director Gary McKendry, making his feature film debut, and his team stage the action sequences in a perfunctory manner; there's no build up, no creation of tension, and little understanding of how everything fits together geographically or even chronologically. So we're back to the basic set-up: "Statham does this" and then "Owen does that," even when they appear in the same sequence.

The script, adapted by McKendry and Matt Sherring from a novel entitled "The Feather Men" by Ranulph Fiennes, finds it necessary to explain everything through dialogue. Thus, we have the secret group of ex-SAS men telling each other at a secret meeting exactly what it is that their organization does. One of them even kindly lists some of their current occupations. (I fully expected him to say something like: "Bill, since you live at 10 Downing Street, you know exactly what's going on with the Prime Minister of England, don't you? Why don't you tell us about your daily duties for the Prime Minister of England. I know we've all heard it a thousand times before, but for some ungodly reason, I would like you to say it again, for the benefit of the unseen audience watching in a movie theater.")

Without a compelling storyline, we're left with the action to contemplate, and it's barely good enough to keep you awake.

Killer Elite opens in wide release throughout the U.S. on Friday, September 23. Check local listings for theaters and showtimes.

Photo credit: © 2011 - Open Road Films.


Killer Elite

  • Gary McKendry
  • Matt Sherring (screenplay)
  • Ranulph Fiennes (book)
  • Jason Statham
  • Clive Owen
  • Robert De Niro
  • Dominic Purcell
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Gary McKendryMatt SherringRanulph FiennesJason StathamClive OwenRobert De NiroDominic PurcellActionCrimeThriller

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