Loosely based on a supposedly true story, Killer Elite is a better-than-average shoot-’em-up, as far as shoot-’em-ups go. There are a couple of moments of genuinely intense action and some impressive stunt work, and first-time director Gary McKendry does his best to keep everything in the film reasonably plausible — something most action flicks today cheerfully ignore, opting for bigger is better. But Killer Elite is too formulaic to overcome a been-there, done-that feel.
The movie is based on Ranulph Fiennes’ novel The Feather Men, which was sold as a fictionalized memoir. Jason Statham stars as Danny, a killer-for-hire (will this actor ever take on a role that doesn’t require him to shoot guns or twist people’s necks?) whose mentor, the none-too-subtly named Hunter (Robert De Niro), is kidnapped by an Omani sheikh (Rodney Afif) and held for ransom.
In order to secure his friend’s freedom, Danny must travel to England and take out the former SAS agents who killed the sheikh’s sons. He must also get videotaped confessions just before they are executed for proof of their deaths.
Danny decides to make the deaths seem accidental, so as to avoid attention from British authorities. But the trick doesn’t fool veteran hitman Spike (Clive Owen), who quickly latches on to Danny’s plan and tries to stop him before he can finish his bloody mission.
Killer Elite contains some impressive fight scenes, including a brutal throwdown between Statham and Owen so realistic you wonder if the actors may have broken some bones. Owen, whose character lost his eyes while on the job and now sports creepy, blood-shot transplants, is particularly good at radiating intensity and obsessive drive. But the movie doesn’t delve into the psyches of men who kill for a living, opting for a much more superficial approach derivative of countless other films about assassins. Despite some deft twists, the outcome is never in question: These men may be capable of practically anything (in one scene, Statham has to fight off baddies while tied to a chair with his arms behind his back), but the film fails to convey the mindset and constant paranoia of people whose profession is murder.
The most honest scene in Killer Elite is a shot of De Niro gleefully stuffing his pockets with wads of money before getting out of town: That is essentially what the entire cast is doing, although Statham and Owen work hard to earn their pay. De Niro, who now acts strictly for a paycheck, coasts through the film with an embarrassed smirk. Oh, how the mighty have fallen.
Cast: Jason Statham, Clive Owen, Robert De Niro, Dominic Purcell, Adam Young, Rodney Afif, Ben Mendelsohn.
Director: Gary McKendry.
Screenwriters: Gary McKendry, Matt Sherring. Based on the novel The Feather Men by Ranulph Fiennes.
Producers: Michael Boughen, Steve Chasman, Sigurjon Sighvatsson.
An Open Road release. Running time: 105 minutes. Vulgar language, violence, gore, adult themes. Opens Sept. 23 at area theaters