Killer Elite is a throwback to an era when action movies still had balls, when muscular bravado easily overcame banal screenwriting and corny narrative earnestness. On paper, the plot is practically eye-rolling: Jason Statham is Danny Bryce, an assassin par excellence who’s grown tired of killing and wants to get out of the business, only for fate to intervene and demand he undertake one last job when his friend and partner (Robert De Niro in happy, paycheck-collecting mode) is kidnapped by a vengeful Dubai sheikh. In exchange for his friend’s life, Danny must track down, obtain confessions from, and execute the men responsible for the murder of the sheikh’s three sons, and he must accomplish this task before the man has succumbed to his terminal illness. Further stacking the cards against Danny: these men are all former members of the virtually untouchable British Special Air Services.
What follows is a fairly routine bit of cat-and-mouse globetrotting with a romantic interest tossed in for Danny as added character motivation, but it’s a paralleling conflict involving the efforts of an unofficial military protection agency led by Clive Owen’s tough-guy Spike that makes Killer Elite more than the sum of its parts.
Adapted from Sir Ranulph Fiennes’s 1991 novel The Feather Men, the film purports to have origins in real events, delivering its action-movie gusto with a healthy side of political cynicism (think of it as a poor man’s Munich) that professes even the most well intended of violent acts to be an exercise in futility—a thesis honored by the refusal to portray its bloodshed as anything but honorable or romantic. Pity this thoughtfulness has been largely streamlined into overly schematic storytelling, such as the contrived manner in which Danny manages to repeatedly avoid getting blood on his hands (in an opening assassination set piece, he pulls a Scarface act of compassion and vows to be through with killing).
De Niro phones it in to minimal detriment as the amiable Hunter, while the simmering presence of Owen and Statham (and Dominic Purcell, or, rather, his epic mustache) make this genre ditty worth sinking one’s teeth into. Director Gary McKendry seems to know that no amount of digital wizardry can match the raw testosterone of actual stunt work; his action sequences are fluidly constructed and refreshingly easy to follow, a not-insubstantial achievement given the unfortunate fact that they seem to have sprung from Paul Greengrass’s imagination. Killer Elite is pleasurable enough, but with a steadier hand, it could’ve been one for the books.