Should I Watch..? 'Killer Elite' (2011)
What's the big deal?
Killer Elite is an action thriller film released in 2011 and is based on the novel The Feather Men by Ranulph Fiennes. The film stars Jason Statham, Clive Owen and Robert De Niro and was directed by debutant feature filmmaker Gary McKendry. Set in 1980, the film depicts a group of mercenaries tracking down and murdering former SAS members and the attempts by a secret organisation to stop them. The film, like the book it's based on, claims to be "inspired" by actual events although this has been disputed by the SAS themselves as well as family members of people depicted in the film. The movie was released to a negative reception from critics and it also underperformed at the box office, earning just over $57 million worldwide which was far below the film's estimated budget. The film is not related or connected in any way to the 1975 Sam Peckinpah film The Killer Elite.
What's it about?
In Mexico in 1980, a team of mercenaries are hired to assassinate a well-connected man. Although the mission is a successful, team leader Danny Bryce is injured during the getaway and is traumatised when he discovers the victim's young child has witnessed the ordeal. Danny then decides to walk away from the lifestyle, leaving his colleagues Davies and Meier and his beloved mentor Hunter to carry on without him. Moving to rural Australia, Danny attempts to start a new life with his girlfriend Anne but his past is never far behind. A year later, he receives a plane ticket to Oman through the post and a picture confirming that Hunter has been captured.
Danny meets up with a mysterious agent in Oman who tells him that Hunter was on a $6 million assignment when he failed. Hunter's employer, the exiled Sheik Amr, is desperate to see his son's three killers murdered in retribution before he dies and now encourages Danny to take on the assignment in order to secure the money and Hunter's release. The job won't be easy, though - the three targets are former SAS operatives, they must been filmed confessing to the murder of the sheik's sons and their demise must look like an accident. As Danny persuades Meier and Davies to help him, he is unaware that his efforts are being watched by another former SAS operative called Spike who is working for an enigmatic group operating in the shadows...
Robert De Niro
Release Date (UK)
23rd September, 2011
What's to like?
There's no point pretending that Killer Elite is anything other than a vehicle for Statham who brings his typical meat-headed characterisation to the role. But for once, the film actually strives to avoid action movie cliche. The narrative is a twisting and complex tale of 'spy versus spy' with plenty of peripheral characters possessing unknown influence and power, like a more action-flavoured version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. The retro setting also makes the film feel unusual as well as all the excuse you need for dropping some classic punk and new-wave pop hits. It also lets Owen get away with a distracting moustache.
Speaking of Owen, he is the lynchpin of the picture as he reminds us that he can do the action as well as the drama and also makes me think that he could have been a great James Bond. Statham is better in the action scenes but his Cockney accent also reminds us that he's not your typical Steven Seagal-style action lead, helped by that cheeky glint in his eye. I also enjoyed Purcell's performance as Davies, looking like he literally just stepped out of a biker pub in the early Eighties - again, thanks to some suspect facial hair. The film might not have as much action as a Steven Seagal flick but the action in the film is great with kinetic car chases, noisy gun battles and some impressive fight sequences that reminded me of films like The Bourne Identity or fellow Statham action film The Transporter.
- Despite only a few scenes being set in Australia, twenty-five members of the film's cast were either born or relocated to Australia including Rodney Afif and Firass Dirani, who played the dying Sheik and his last surviving son respectively.
- Among those dismissing the film's claims of being based on a true story include the film's military advisor, former SAS member Iain Townsley who served in the British Army for 25 years including 18 years with the SAS. Townsley was quoted as saying "it's a good story but not a true story".
- Fiennes actually appears in the film as a character, a former SAS member who is about to publish a book falsely claiming that he was involved in the killings of the Sheik's sons. He is played by Dion Mills who makes his cinematic debut in the film.
What's not to like?
Unfortunately, Killer Elite makes some odd decisions that prevent it from becoming a genuine classic. The film suffers some uninspired direction by McKendry and from a visual perspective, the film feels unimaginative and quite ordinary. I suspect that McKendry - whose only other credit on IMDB is an Oscar-nominated short film - was overwhelmed helming an ambitious big-budget project with shoots all over the world and Robert bloody De Niro in the cast. Speaking of the veteran, his performance in the film is perfectly fine and reminds us that he is just as adept in the action moments as he is delivering dialogue. I know Heat seems like a long time ago but he's still got it. However, his presence is unsettling on two counts. First, he's the only American in the cast and his relationship to Statham's character is never fully explored. More importantly, his presence overwhelms the film. He is a massive fish in a relatively small pond - beyond the three leads, the rest of the cast are almost unrecognisable and yet somehow, there's De Niro gracing us with his presence. It doesn't quite make sense to me.
Other issues include the film's confusion over the setting with several obvious anachronisms and overhead shots of cities that clearly aren't. I also would have liked some exposition in the film because it's kinda dealt with through whispered conversations in busy places or dialogue that hints at a wider world we're not familiar with. I wanted to understand how all these characters were, what their motivations were and how they all connected with each other. I also would have liked these characters to feel like people rather than cold-blooded killers who exist purely to shoot people.
Should I watch it?
Entertaining without being exceptional, Killer Elite settles for just being a good enough thriller. It feels like a B-movie with an A-list cast and perhaps with a better screenplay (this is also the only credit on IMDB for screenwriter Sherring) or more experienced director, there might have been a better movie here. The basic ingredients are here - good story, great cast, decent action - but the film needed a bit more polish and a bit more effort to stand out.
Great For: British action fans, hairy men, Australian actors
Not So Great For: Ranulph Fiennes' credibility, anyone expecting Statham to actually act, the easily confused
What else should I watch?
I don't know about you but I find Jason Statham one of the most frustrating actors in the business. For a guy who is as skilled as he is in action roles and with charisma and charm for days, he should be the leading action star in Hollywood - well, if his Fast & Furious co-star Dwayne Johnson wasn't around. He can even do comedy as films like Spy or his debut Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels prove and yet the majority of his career seems to have languished in middle-of-the-road action movies like Death Race, The Mechanic or Wild Card. I know he can do better and not just in action franchises like The Expendables.
Britain doesn't have as much of a storied exposure to action films as the Americans have, where seemingly every city in the US has been blown up in the name of entertainment. For reasons I can't explain, the first film that came to mind when I tried to think of one was Hot Fuzz - the Simon Pegg action comedy where he plays an elite cop stuck in the least crime-ridden place in the UK. Equally enjoyable was The Hitman's Bodyguard, a surprising action comedy with Samuel L Jackson and Ryan Reynolds playing exaggerated versions of themselves shooting the hell out of the UK countryside. And if you're looking for something alternative, why not give Free Fire a try - another action-comedy from the warped mind of Ben Wheatley, a visionary writer and director currently working on the next Tomb Raider film.
© 2020 Benjamin Cox