Screen Rant’s Ben Kendrick reviews Killer Elite
If there’s one thing that star Jason Statham is known for it’s straightforward anti-heroes that get caught up in balls-to-the-wall action set-pieces. With a pedigree that includes The Expendables, Crank, The Italian Job, The Transporter, and Snatch, it’s no surprise that even his “based on a true story” (emphasis on based) Killer Elite film contains plenty of larger-than-life action.
At first glance, in a movie industry riddled with remakes, some filmgoers might assume that Killer Elite, is actually a reimagining of the 1975 film, The Killer Elite, starring James Caan and Robert Duvall from director Sam Peckinpah (Straw Dogs). However, Stathams’s Killer Elite is completely unrelated to the earlier film and is actually an adaptation based loosely on the events detailed in Sir Ranulph Fiennes’ novel, The Feather Men. The novel itself, especially Fiennes’ claim that the book was “based on actual events,” caused plenty of controversy around the time of its publication – and continues to be a source of tension today. Is the film version an equally provocative action flick with compelling drama or just an excuse for Clive Owen and Jason Statham to beat each-other up?
There’s no doubt that Killer Elite is going to satisfy a lot of Jason Statham faithfuls as well as fans of practical effects-driven action films. However, even though there are a decent number of heavy-hitting action set-pieces, Killer Elite is a narrative mess that convolutes a pretty straight-forward plot with loads of bizarre character relationships and added “drama” in an attempt to elevate the film beyond a throwaway action experience.
The basic plot of Killer Elite is simple enough, contract killer Danny Bryce (Jason Statham) attempts to get out of the “game” after a job in Mexico turns ugly. That is, until his closest friend and mentor, Hunter (Robert De Niro) is captured by a rich Dubai sheikh. In order to free his friend, Bryce must succeed in completing Hunter’s assignment – to kill three British Special Air Service (SAS) agents responsible for murdering the sheikh’s three oldest sons in cold blood. Bryce quickly assembles a team and gets to work – subsequently drawing the attention of former SAS operative, Spike Logan (Clive Owen) who will stop at nothing to protect the soldiers.
It’s a pretty basic plot – until the film attempts to pull in a series of side stories, including government conspiracy, a secret society, and even a romantic through-line – all of which require on-the-nose and disjointed exposition that weighs down any potential for dramatic tension. Instead of a tightly-wound action adventure film with a bit of added political intrigue or compelling character relationships, Killer Elite lumbers along for 105 minutes – saddled with too much time spent as Statham stares out airplane windows (cue flashbacks) and Owen converses with greying bureaucrats.
It’s unfortunate because there are some genuinely fun character moments that shine through all of the anticlimactic drama – specifically any time De Niro is on screen. Not only is it fun to see the aged star in a role where he can genuinely kick ass, the veteran’s on-screen presence helps buoy some of the performances from his colleagues. Statham and De Niro, have an especially enjoyable connection and watching the two trade barbs or fight together is surprisingly fun (and believable). Sadly, the same can’t be said for the dynamic between Statham and Owen, whose scenes mostly amount to verbal pissing contests that sometimes result in the pair throwing each other around for a few minutes.
The various “missions” are, for the most part, diverse and interesting enough to keep moviegoers invested – each of the contracts has to confess to killing one of the sheikh’s sons and Bryce has to make each death look like an accident. However, it can be hard to suspend disbelief from time to time – considering Bryce’s team is supposed to include some of the slickest killers on the planet. Davies (Dominic Purcell), often referred to as the Welshmen in the film, is enjoyable to watch but unbelievably clumsy for someone who is supposed to be successfully going head-to-head with SAS agents. Similarly, some of the more difficult to explain elements of the film occur off-screen, such as one of the SAS soldier’s confessions. These scenes are, for lack of a better term, cop-outs and, as a result, fail to pay off built up tension – instead of rising to the occasion and delivering believable and satisfying “in the moment” drama.
That said, the biggest problem is the pacing – which, coupled with the convoluted segments of the plot, rob the film of any narrative momentum. Killer Elite frequently jumps timeframes and locales – and as a result of various unfolding plot elements in the final act push out one anti-climax after another. Audience members will be nervous when they aren’t supposed to be or blindsided by terribly handled, and uninspired, twists that are poorly developed throughout the larger narrative. Despite a solid Statham-esque chase sequence mid-way through act three, the closing minutes of Killer Elite fall pretty flat – not to mention fail to make good on all that time spent ruminating on competing political motives.
Fans of Jason Statham will no doubt have some fun with Killer Elite and there’s one show-stopping moment in the first Statham/Owen brawl that will certainly get a reaction from audiences, but for anyone looking for either an over-the-top action flick or a smart-witted political thriller, the film fails to live up to the sum of its respective parts. What’s left is a cartoony and messy narrative that is mostly style over substance – a similar criticism to the ones, coincidentally, that have been used in attempt to discredit the validity of Fiennes’ Feather Men tell-all and/or novel.
If you’re still on the fence about Killer Elite, check out the trailer below:
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Killer Elite is now in theaters.