A retired elite special-ops agent (Jason Statham) is called back into action when his friend and mentor (Robert de Niro) is taken captive and the only chance of freeing him is to dispatch the three highly trained assassins responsible for the deaths of the captor's sons.
What we thought:
"Based on a true story". If ever there was a phrase that has no place in front of a Jason Statham movie, that particular stamp of "respectability" must surely be it. Statham's stock in trade is over the top, hyper-real action films that allow him to show off his considerable charms and physical prowess without allowing silly things like real-world physics or believability to get in his way. Killer Elite, however, has the dreaded "based on a true story" emblazoned all over its trailers, movie posters and advertising – to say nothing of the beginning of the film itself – and is pretty much doomed from the start.
This may, of course, seem like a barely concealed criticism of Jason Statham's lack of acting range, but range has never been what "The Stath" is about. He is a charismatic and endlessly likeable action star and, when you consider just how rare a breed that is these days, it is hardly something to be scoffed at. Regardless of what else is right or wrong about the film, director Gary McKendry (who actually does a fairly solid job with his debut feature film) clearly understands his star's strengths and he seems more than willing to stand back and allow Statham to do what he does best.
Statham's Danny is an anti-hero we never stop rooting for as he punches, kicks and blasts his way through a veritable torrent of baddies (or, at least, "not-entirely-goodies") with all the bone-crunching and odds-defying panache that we have come to expect from the action genre's leading man. Yes, it's completely unbelievable and more than a little bonkers but, damnit, this is what we want!
Sadly, what we want and what we get for the rest of the film is a rather different matter. The traditionally explosive Statham set pieces are as fun as ever but they are entirely at odds with what the film is supposed to (apparently) be about. In those unfortunate moments when Statham is not busting heads – or, for that matter, when Clive Owen isn't being intensely intense or when De Niro isn't being intensely De Niro – the film constantly gestures towards the complexities of real-world espionage and moral grey areas of that world without ever truly engaging with this tricky subject matter.
I made similar complaints about another Statham film to come out this year, the similarly middling and just plain similar The Mechanic, but hopefully these films are only a small detour, rather than an entirely misjudged change of direction, towards bringing "credibility" to someone who really, really doesn't need it. As it is, Killer Elite is simply a confounding, tonally confused misfire of a film that aims for intelligence and relevance but is at its best when at its most trashy.
Until The Stath returns to his delectably fruity B-movie heritage, I guess his fans are simply going to have to settle for the small pleasures to be found in these otherwise unremarkable films. Spy flick fans, incidentally, are almost definitely better off waiting for the very promising Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy for their espionage kicks as Killer Elite is about as effective in this area as Johnny English Reborn.