Though inspired by actual events, and based (loosely) on an actual book, The Feather Men by Sir Ranulph Fiennes, THE KILLER ELITE is a vehicle expertly tailored to the particular talents of Jason Statham. This is, in itself, not an indictment. Mr. Statham has starred in high-adrenaline action flicks that are more than worthy of viewing on their own terms. Alas, this one, while full of the usual snazzy car chases, flying fists of cold, hard fury, and violence that is visually compelling, is not one of his best.
Consistent with Mr. Stathams films, he is a killer, but not an unprincipled one. In this case, named Danny. While open to being an assassin, and using heavy artillery, Danny draws the line at innocent bystanders. Particularly children, a feature of the mission that the film joins in progress. Paired with older and wilier Robert De Niro, Danny flinches for the nanosecond it takes for him to be wounded, and which prompts him to take himself out of the game and into retirement. Naturally, it doesnt last, though hes in the outback of Australia long enough to form an attachment to a pretty blonde local (Yvonne Strahovski). Personal loyalty, a trait that is not in the best interests of an assassin, but which holds sway with Danny, brings him back into the game to save de Niro. At one point, a member of the crack team of operatives he puts together sums up the ridiculousness of the mission. Kill three former SAS officers, the best trained special ops organization in the world, but first get them to confess to murdering the sons of a sheik, and then make the deaths look like accidents. The sheiks oil is of no importance to Danny, and neither is the $6 million in reward money, though it is of great interest to the highest levels of government. With Danny, is strictly personal, and this is the paradox.
Fueled by emotions as Danny is, the film itself is hopelessly bloodless. Its a procedural spy flick, set in the pre-cell phone world of 1981 and moving along at a brisk, but not compelling pace. There is about it a clockwork precision as shady characters wielding the power behind the scenes have clandestine meetings in stately British houses, their minions have their clandestine meetings at stately national monuments, and the operatives, armed to the teeth and obeying orders without question, get down and dirty in places near and far.
It should be no surprise to anyone, on screen or in the audience, that the SAS, being the super elite organization that it is, soon picks up on Dannys doings, though it is an ex-SAS officer, Spike (Clive Owen), who sets himself the task of taking care of the problem. Danny and Spike dance around each other for most of the running time, rarely coming face-to-face, but often beating those between them senseless or worse. It soon becomes apparent, to the audience before the players, that they are being played by those who run things behind the scenes. Plausible deniability and a complete indifference to the niceties of morality where money and/or power is concerned make everyone expendable. The counterpoint of that and the personal loyalty of killing machines in the field is not emphasized nearly enough to make a compelling tension and the missed opportunity is galling.
As for the action, its competent. Statham is steel-jawed and efficient. Owen is rumpled and determined. De Niro is wonderfully animated spitting fire from a machine gun or outsmarting would-be captors with fast moves and cat-like reflexes. For the rest, its snazzy driving, efficient killing, and intricate plans that dont bog the film down in superfluous details, not when theres another body to be flung at a startled passerby.
In THE KILLER ELITE, the audience learns that Jason Statham, tied to a chair and unarmed, is more dangerous than men who are both armed and unfettered. Moments like that of pure, reckless physicality rife with kinetic surprise are too few and too far between.