Killer Elite (United States, 2012)
Directed by: Gary McKendry
Written by: Matt Sherring, based on the book by Ranulph Fiennes
Starring: Jason Statham, Robert De Niro, Clive Owen
This review originally appeared in Digital Retribution.
The great Robert De Niro isn’t known as an action star at the best of times, but in the star-studded international action thriller Killer Elite he comes off as less raging bull and more elderly tapir, his scruffy grey beard and bulging midriff doing his believability as an elite no-bullshit mercenary no favours at all.
De Niro’s character, known as Hunter, is a sort of mentor to Danny Bryce (Jason Statham) in the high-stakes business of assassinations, kidnappings and any other nefarious activities required of them. After a particularly hair-raising job gone wrong, Bryce retires to the Yarra Valley in Victoria’s east with his Australian lady friend Anne (Yvonne Strahovski), determined that he’s seen his last assault rifle.
But as the tired and over-used cliché goes, just when you think you’re out they pull you back in, and a year later Bryce discovers that Hunter has been taken captive by an exiled Omani sheikh known as Amr, whose motives are as dodgy as the fake beard worn by actor Rodney Afif.
Three of the sheikh’s sons were killed during a clandestine battle with the British S.A.S., and the sheikh decides that his best chance at revenge is to coerce the world’s best contract killer, Bryce (an ex-S.A.S. soldier himself), to hunt down the three British soldiers responsible and eliminate them.
But knowing that Bryce would never volunteer his services to an Omani warlord, the sheikh lures Hunter to the Middle East with false promises of an astronomically high-paying job, and succeeds in convincing Bryce to do his dirty work after threatening to kill Hunter.
There have been countless action thrillers released in the past decade which use a military or government conspiracy as a plot device, a tidal wave which began with the incomprehensibly popular Jason Bourne films. A story which sets a highly-trained special agent gone rogue against institutionalised corruption has great appeal, pitting good versus evil and David versus Goliath, so it’s not difficult to see why they keep getting made. Clearly, audiences love them.
And almost without exception they have one thing in common: great action scenes. Even the poor quality films with thin plotting and perfunctory storylines have at least one genuinely excellent fight or chase sequence, thanks to advances in digital special effects and stunt work. As long as the action scenes are good enough, you can string them together with any old dross and still have a relatively successful action flick on your hands.
But perversely, Killer Elite‘s problem isn’t a thin plotline; in fact its story is its greatest – maybe only – strength. First-time director Gary McKendry and writer Matt Sherring wisely recognise this, and allow their actors plenty of time and space to explore tensions between former foes in the Battle of Mirbat, a contentious conflict in which Omani rebels attempted an uprising against a neglectful sultan Said bin Taimur.
While it occasionally strays into stereotype and won’t ever be praised for its nuanced view of Middle Eastern politics, Killer Elite defies its schlocky title and offers much more than a flimsy series of MacGuffins to keep the action flowing.
But its action scenes are surprisingly disappointing, coming off as pedestrian compared to the genre’s shining lights. Heavy lifting is mostly left to Statham and Owen, with the ageing De Niro largely confined to exposition in his desert dungeon, and though they are both proven action heroes they have little opportunity to show off their skills in what are pretty weak fight and chase scenes.
Maybe it’s just me, but a fist-fight between two men needs more than a few smashing bottles and lot of grunting to keep me interested. Statham is particularly frustrating because he can be a genuinely hilarious comedic actor, but Killer Elite is so unceasingly serious that his greatest weapon – his personality – stays locked in the holster.
And what a sad state of affairs it is when Robert De Niro’s name on a poster is an indication to stay away from a film. Obviously his best work is behind him and no one expects him to put in performances comparable to his work in the 70s, 80s and 90s, but whatever happened to older actors going quietly into the night? Between the interminable Focker movies and a long string of second-rate mysteries, dramas and thrillers, De Niro is in the middle of the worst career downturn since Buster Keaton’s disastrous decision to sign with MGM in 1928.
Killer Elite is already out on Blu-ray in the U.S., U.K. and Canada (yet another victim of the senseless delay of international releases), and it’s probably a smart move to wait until it hits home video here in Australia as well.