On one hand, it must be a fantastic moment in one’s career when simply starring in a film means high expectations. On the other hand, sometimes those high expectations aren’t appropriate for certain films. Killer Elite is a film that was designed for drama, but valiantly tries to carry the action baggage of its lead actor. Overall, it gets the job done and delivers on how the trailers are selling it, but audiences will be better served if they approach Killer Elite expecting a slower pace and an overarching plot.
Based on the alleged true account in the book The Feather Men by Sir Ranulph Fiennes, Killer Elite is set in the very early 80’s and revolves around a group of elite assassins who take high-priced contracts offered by a mysterious travel agent. Danny (Jason Statham) decides that he wants to get out of the business after nearly killing a child during his last mission. He’s dragged back in a year later when he discovers that his friend and partner, Hunter (Robert De Niro), has been captured by a Sheik who needs someone to avenge his sons. Hunter is the ransom to convince Danny to complete the hits. The job becomes more complicated when he discovers that the marks are SAS operatives, so Danny joins his old team (Dominic Purcell and Aden Young) to rise to the challenge. Unfortunately, protecting the targets is ex-SAS attack dog Spike (Clive Owen), who is now part of a secret society known as The Feather Men composed of ex-SAS who protect their own.
For better or worse, Jason Statham brings an expectation of high caliber action whenever he leads a film in the US. Those expecting a non-stop thrill ride will probably be disappointed here. The action is few and far between and when it does happen, it’s usually more practical and grounded in reality rather than stylish and high-flying. For instance, a car chase scene takes place in and around a small parking lot only to end exactly where it started. Fight scenes, while offering satisfying lengths, are choreographed as dirty brawls rather than clinical exhibitions. That’s not to say that there aren’t truly awe-inspiring moments. A creative three-way fight sequence features Statham fighting while tied to a chair, using his seat as a makeshift bludgeon – while still attached to it. Regrettably, much of the action takes place in dark areas with the camera zoomed in uncomfortably close, making it difficult to tell what’s going on.
Viewing Killer Elite as a drama with action elements puts everything in better perspective. There’s actually an intriguing story beneath the rough-and-tumble veneer. Hunter is a career assassin looking for a big score to support his wife and children. Danny wants a normal life, but can’t escape his past. Spike seems to avoid a normal life and tries to live in the past. The situations of all three men fit nicely to create a compelling plot, but developing the story in a satisfying manner takes time and the film definitely reflects that. It feels long, but, ironically, Killer Elite could use an additional 30 minutes to flesh out the details more. As such, some of the histories and motivations for some characters feel a little thin. As an example, Danny has a girlfriend (Yvonne Strahovski), but the couple’s backstory is awkwardly developed through flashbacks that seem to occur randomly. Additionally, Spike seems to be very attached to the SAS targets, but doesn’t explain why until nearly the very end of the film. There’s a lot to develop here and a longer running time could have gone a long way.
The acting is serviceable all around. Statham and Owen are reliably rough and gruff while De Niro and the other supporting cast members try to remain affable. Dominic Purcell is probably the only one having any fun with his character, however, and having him onscreen helps lighten the mood.
Killer Elite is fertile territory for character and theme exploration, and it would have been highly satisfying if the film focused on Danny’s struggle with killing strangers after he swore to quit. Killer Elite would also have made an excellent, high-octane action beat ‘em up with Statham showing off his slick moves as per his reputation. Instead, the film splits the difference, resulting in something nebulous, but not without its charms. Audiences just need to manage their expectations going in.