Killer Elite shoots to thrill

But Statham and De Niro can’t quite hit the mark.

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Based on a controversial book that the author and publisher claimed was a document of true events, Killer Elite plays out like a decent summer page-turner. There’s nothing particularly memorable or out of the ordinary going on here, but it’s a competently executed action film. Amidst a lot of would-be actioners that are anything but competent, that makes it something of a distinguished effort.

It’s also awfully formulaic. Jason Statham and Robert De Niro get top billing as mercenaries for hire with the requisite father-son relationship. De Niro’s role as Hunter is a little more substantial than a cameo, but nowhere near the supporting or starring part one might have expected or hoped for. Clive Owen (Children of Men), sporting a thin, crooked mustache, is their antagonist as Spike, a former member of Britain’s Special Air Service, doing the dirty work for a small shadow group of aged ex-SAS members who call themselves the Feather Men.

The motivations are fairly straightforward all around. Statham’s Danny comes out of retirement to do the obligatory “one last job” in order to free Hunter, who’s been kidnapped by an exiled sheikh. That job involves assassinating the British soldiers who killed the sheikh’s sons during a battle in Oman. Spike takes it upon himself to do the noble job of capturing those who are offing his ex-colleagues. Even when a double-cross is tossed in late in the movie, it doesn’t cause a re-evaluation of the events that have already transpired, and is less an indictment of nationalism than a plot device standard to the cloak-and-dagger machinations.

Director Gary McKendry, working in his first feature, does a good job handling the action sequences; he’s less assured between those moments. A tense hand-to-hand combat between Owen and Statham is well choreographed and edited, as are the car chases and rooftop escapes. But McKendry doesn’t know how to charge the film’s slow burn with suspense. It’s just this side of being able to remind one of other, better films of intrigue, like Patriot Games. It also suffers badly for the comparison.

Killer Elite lacks depth to its characterizations. Fortunately, it has a trio of leading men that are gifted with considerable screen presence, making it easy to earn our empathy. It’s tempting to say that Statham and De Niro deserve better, until one considers that De Niro’s been coasting as an actor for many years, and Statham is usually in middling action flicks anyway. Fans of his high-octane Transporter series should be advised there’s nothing here as over the top as the set pieces or camera work in those films.

However, De Niro is fun to watch in his small role, playing what is essentially an older, more grizzled version of his character from Ronin (a far superior film). If it’s the allure of De Niro kicking ass that turns you on, rent that instead.

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