Jason Statham and Clive Owen compete to see who is more of a craggy tough guy in Killer Elite, an entertaining spy-vs.-spy movie.
Danny (Statham) makes his living going to dusty corners of the world with Hunter (Robert De Niro) and a small crew of other guys and killing people who stand in the way of someone trying to make money or seize power. After one particularly upsetting job in Mexico, Danny decides he’s out.
Of course, after only a mere year of being “out,” he is pulled back in when he receives word that Hunter has been kidnapped. The kidnapping, it seems, is to ensure someone will provide diligent work on a very difficult job — finding and killing three specific members of the S.A.S., the British special forces unit that got involved in a tribal war in the Middle East. Sheik Amr (Rodney Afif) was on the losing side of that conflict — three of his sons were killed and he left the area rather than risk the life of his fourth son, Bakhait (Firass Dirani). Before he dies, Amr wants to get revenge on the men (but in a way that Bakhait will never be blamed for) so he can regain his position and his son can return to his homeland. (Bakhait, on the other hand, is a natty dresser and seems to enjoy the ladies. He does not appear thrilled with the prospect of returning to some desert homeland.)
Thus Danny and his team must find the men responsible for the killings, videotape them confessing to their crimes and then kill them in a way that will look like an accident. But that may be the easy part of the job — after all, these are men trained by the government to spot covert surveillance, fight off enemies and never talk under torture. And this isn’t some Third World country Danny will be operating in — it’s the United Kingdom.
And, while the men he’s seeking are retired, they aren’t letting their skills go to seed. They all seem tangentially connected to the Feather Men, a group of former special forces soldiers who haven’t completely let go of the spy life. Spike (Clive Owen) is one of their number and he quickly catches on to the fact that the deaths of first one and then another former S.A.S. man aren’t accidents. Soon, Spike is hunting Danny even as Danny is hunting Spike’s fellow veterans. And, if the job’s not done right, the Sheik may soon be hunting all of them, after first killing Hunter.
This movie has a nice bit of fun with its jaded subject matter — title cards kick off the realpolitik tone when they say that the world is in chaos, an economic slump is on its way to getting worse due to an oil crisis and revolutions, assassinations and covert operations are the order of the day. Then: “It’s 1980.” The names might be different but many of the players and the motives sound familiar: a covert Middle East operation by a Western government, a rich sheik wanting revenge, a gadabout son wanting none of his father’s politics, oil. As we get deeper into the plot and a reluctant Danny finds himself digging further into the Feather Men, other shadowy figures appear, including the agent who set up Hunter’s original job and assorted government-type men. The movie’s message is that they’re all dirty — from the mercenaries to the government agents, none of them are on the side of the angels.
But since we want to like Statham’s character, the movie does show us his tender side. During that one year “out,” he returned to Australia and started working on a farm where he renewed a friendship with neighbor Anne (Yvonne Strahovski, best known as Agent Walker on Chuck). Oh, the love of a good woman could change him if only he didn’t have to kill all these people first to save his friend.
Perhaps Killer Elite was shooting for something more substantial, something in the Charlie Wilson’s War neighborhood of movies about government schemes and unsavory geopolitics. If that’s the case, it needed a better name, for starters. But as B-movie action comfort food, Killer Elite is just dandy. It offers highly watchable characters in a nicely twisty story. And we get to see Owen and Statham fight each other at least two times, both of which are big fun.
I don’t know that anybody needs to rush out of their way for this one, but when it turns up on Netflix or the “free movies” section of On Demand on some lazy, snowy January Saturday, you could do a lot worse. C+
Rated R for strong violence, language and some sexuality/nudity. Directed by Gary McKendry with a screenplay by Matt Sherring (from a non-fiction book by Ranulph Fiennes), Killer Elite is an hour and 45 minutes long and is distributed by Open Road Films.