Killer Elite: Toronto Review

Efficient, overly formulaic action piece could have been more distinctive but delivers the goods for solid international returns.

This muscular thriller--led by Jason Statham, Clive Owen and Robert De Niro--strives to be a genuinely good film, but unwilling to let go of proven formulas, it falls short.

Killer Elite is half-interested in being a legitimate exploration of the shadowy world of former British special forces operatives but remains too afraid not to supply the clockwork doses of rote action and violence presumably expected by Jason Statham's international audience. As if wanting to be a genuinely good film, such as The Bank Job, made by some of the same team, but unwilling to let go of proven formulas, this muscular thriller basically gets the job done but is not all it might have been, given the intriguing source material. Macho marquee bait and loads of visceral chases and close combat should spell lively business, especially overseas.

“Killing is easy. Living with it is the hard part,” says Statham's Danny, who should know. A special-ops agent par excellence, Danny and his mentor, the aptly-named Hunter (Robert De Niro), show what they're made of by pulling off a tricky motorized hit in the Mexico-set opening sequence. But when he can't bring himself to finish off a young kid who's traveling in the caravan, Danny knows he's done and retires to an Australian farm, where he hopes to leave the past behind.

Fat chance. Some years later, in the 1980s, the trimly grizzled, self-contained Danny is lured to Oman, where Hunter is held by an aging tribal sheikh who will pay him $6 million—and free Hunter—if Danny will take out those responsible for the murders of three of his sons, all of which have been helpfully illustrated in gratuitous, and gratuitously violent, flashbacks. Even after, for the sake of another bloody action scene, Danny tries to break Hunter out of the sheikh's grasp and kills several of his minions in the process, the tribal chief still wants Danny to the job. But, as with any suspense caper worth its salt, there are very particular conditions: The victims must confess on video to what they did, and each killing must be pulled off in a different style, to avoid the appearance of any connections between them.

Thus starts the hunt, with a first stop in Paris, where Danny collects two cohorts, the can-do ex-paratrooper Davies (Dominic Purcell) and the technically-minded Meier (Aden Young). The targets are all former members of Britain's secretive Special Air Service, who are protected by big shot senior veterans of the organization known as “The Feather Men,” which was the title the controversial 1991 “factional” novel by explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes, himself a former SAS man based in Oman for several years.

Among the many omissions and changes from the book wrought by first-time screenwriter Matt Sherring and debuting director Gary McKendry is that the SAS was in Oman in the 1970s to (successfully) combat an East German and Soviet-backed communist insurgency operating out of South Yemen, mention of which might have helpfully modified, or at least made more complex, the cartoonishly bad guy profile the SAS crew is given here. It's just one example of how the film adheres to a formula template rather than incorporating ironies, ambiguities and social insights (as The Bank Job so nicely did) to enrich the material.

So it's best to lower expectations and enjoy the spectacle of Danny and his boys tracking and dispatching their victims, which includes infiltrating an SAS training ground but more often involves the standard tropes of car chases, shootings and brutal hand-to-hand combat. Danny's chief nemesis is the one-eyed assassin Spike (Clive Owen), a bloke so rough the prudent Feather Men eventually cast him off, turning him into an ever-more-dangerous rogue agent.

As the action skips around from the Middle East to London, rural England and back to Paris, with brief time-outs to idealize Danny's life back in Oz with his sexy, ever-patient lady (Yvonne Strahovski), McKendry aims for bullet train speed most of the time, which keeps things humming efficiently enough. But, given that the plot is built around three main hits, with a couple of bigger climaxes to follow, what's missing is what often gives “job” movies their greatest distinction, the methodical build-up to a mission that not only engrosses an audience in the minutia of a complex operation but mounts tension and suspense, which Killer Elite fails to produce. There's enough onscreen to distract and stimulate, but little that grabs and takes you in.

What you get, then, is reasonably well executed and sometimes imaginative brutality and action, a vaguely intriguing but insufficiently detailed peek at the legacy of a dirty war and the questionable characters involved in it, and an engaging display of three very different varieties of iconographic screen performers: Statham, the rugged man of minimal words always more ready to prove himself, however reluctantly, through action; Owen, formidable, crafty, explosive, never to be discounted, and De Niro, at this stage lovable for having nothing further to prove and by far the warmest guy onscreen. They're all fun to watch.

By contrast, some of the secondary characters could have been more vividly and recognizably cast for quicker and more resonant audience identification. And a quick script polish to produce a few memorable tough guy lines could only have helped.

The film has no relation to Sam Peckinpah's 1975 feature The Killer Elite about American mercenaries and the CIA.