It’s tough being a globetrotting assassin. You spend a lot of time lurking in dusty, sweaty third world regimes, eating crap food and gunning down dodgy foreign types in front of their innocent, blood-spattered, doe-eyed children. Plus there’s no healthcare package, no pension plan.
So, it’ll come as no surprise (particularly if you’ve ever seen any action movie in the last 30 years about a sympathetic international assassin) that, after plugging his latest bad guy in front of the afore-mentioned doe-eyed, innocent child, mercenary-cum-assassin Danny (Jason Statham) gets an attack of guilt, hangs up his guns and runs off to the Aussie bush (mainly because the Aussies stumped up the film’s budget) where in the tradition of tough but sensitive ex-assassins he tries to put his past behind him by renovating a farmhouse and getting himself a superfluous girlfriend (Chuck’s Yvonne Strahovski) from the farm next door.
Grand Designs might be a ratings winner on TV, but who goes to see Jason Statham movies to watch him build his dream home? When his mentor and friend Hunter (Robert De Niro) is kidnapped by an Omani oil sheik Danny’s lured back into action. The deal is simple; if Danny kills the men responsible for the deaths of the sheikh’s sons, after videotaping their confessions, Hunter goes free. The only problem is the targets are all former members of the SAS and they’re protected by the “Feather Men,” a secret society of vigilante ex-SAS men led by Clive Owen’s Spike. Cue satisfyingly bone-crunching violence as Danny and his pals arrange grisly accidents for their targets while Spike and his pals try to stop them.
Based on a ‘factional’ novel by posho polar explorer, former SAS man and fingerless wonder, Sir Ranlph Fiennes, and sharing nothing but the title with Sam Peckinpah’s 1975 film, Killer Elite is an enjoyably daft throwback to the macho shoot-‘em-up, action thrillers of the ‘80s (it’s even set in 1980) where tough guy actors like Charles Bronson and Lee Marvin would spend the entire film knocking hell out of each other while developing a grudging respect bordering on the homoerotic.
The script is dumb but does the job. Britain’s ties to the Oman regime of the ‘70s and the rights and wrongs of the SAS’s grubby little desert war there are explored in absolutely no depth but who cares? If you want to know what happened over there watch the Military History channel which seems to show documentaries about the SAS on an everlasting Moebius strip. The attention to detail and period setting are authentically adequate (though they missed a trick not packing the soundtrack full of New Romantic classics) and it’s amazing how refreshing it is to see an action/spy thriller where the characters don’t spend half the film on mobile phones or tracking each other through the Internet (no Girl Who Surfed T’Interweb for three increasingly convoluted and tedious films here) and instead get their information in an old school style. By beating the living Jesus out of someone.
The characters are nicely ambiguous, with both Statham and Owen putting in moody, intense performances as the rival tough guys, honourable men in a dishonourable world, each admirable in their own way, while Robert De Niro employs the same autopilot he’s been on ever since 1998’s Ronin. The lights are on but really no-one’s home. I kept expecting him to check his phone to see if Michael Mann or Martin Scorsese had called. Much of the dialogue is laughably bad and the film doesn’t just rely on action movie clichés (the kidnapped father figure, the honourable assassin, etc), it’s built entirely from them but it crowbars in enough gun battles, car chases and bruising fight scenes to hold the attention and let’s face it; it’s unlikely you’re watching Killer Elite for the pithy repartee. You’re watching it because there’s a scene where Jason Statham beats up two guys and escapes by jumping out of a window while tied to a chair. You’re watching it because you want to see Jason Statham and Clive Owen beat the crap out of each other. You’re watching it because sometimes, regardless of what The Guardian or your significant other thinks, there’s just nothing better than a big, dumb, beer and popcorn movie.
And if you’re still sitting on the fence, wondering if you’ll like Killer Elite, allow me to reiterate; Jason Statham beats up two guys while he’s tied to a chair! That’s really all you need to know.
Jason Statham, Clive Owen, Robert De Niro, Dominic Purcell, Aden Young, Yvonne Strahovski
Matt Sheering, based on the novel The Feather Men by Sir Ranulph Fiennes