If we are to believe that what ended up on the screen in Killer Elite bears more than a passing nod to the “shocking true story” on which it’s supposedly based, then real-life must be an awful lot like a combination of action-movie cliches and an Edgar Wallace novel. Having encountered nothing remotely like either in my personal experience, I’m inclined to think the assertion is merely a lot of hooey. That doesn’t mean that Killer Elite is without entertainment value. In fact, I had a perfectly fine time watching the movie and the antics of its three stars—and that’s even allowing for that ghastly outcropping of hair on Clive Owen’s upper lip. (Someone break it to Mr. Owen that he’s not Clark Gable or William Powell or Errol Flynn—or even Freddy Mercury.)
What we have here is an amusing collection of various genre tropes that have been dealt out in an appealing—if utterly preposterous—manner. Jason Statham is Danny Bryce, a retired special agent (retired because of one of those traumatic epiphanic moments, much like Gene Wilder in Blazing Saddles), who gets pulled in for “one last job.” Well, don’t they always? Danny has to mete out justice on the three ex-Special Air Service men responsible for the deaths of the sons of some sheikh or other (it hardly matters)—and make the deaths look like unrelated accidents and provide filmed or taped confessions—in order to save the life of his mentor, Hunter (Robert De Niro, who manages to sit out the middle of the movie). Deserting girlfriend Anne (Yvonne Strahovkski)—who exists only as a bargaining chip late in the game, of course—he sets out to do in the three men.
Neither he, nor anyone else, has reckoned on the existence of Spike (Owen)—an embittered, one-eyed SAS veteran who now works for the super-secret organization known as the “Feather Men.” Well, they would be known as the “Feather Men,” except—in the nature of super-secret organizations—nobody’s ever heard of them. They appear to be a bunch of upper-class politicos (as opposed to working class Spike, since people named Spike don’t tend to be upper class) who meet in a paneled room around a table and worry over affairs of state and keeping unfortunate events (like illegal wars) out of the public eye. (I’d have been happier if they wore hoods and had code names, but you can’t have everything.) Well, Spike detects the scent of rodentia after the first death and sets out to thwart Danny. You can fill in the blanks yourself—and very likely already have.
The fact is that Killer Elite is largely a fun—if brutal—action thriller that benefits from its cast. It’s not up there with any of the stars’ best work, but neither is it embarrassing—and in De Niro’s case, that’s saying a good bit these days. The film’s biggest problem is that first-time director Gary McKendry actually seems to think he’s making more than a slightly smarter-than-average action thriller—and he’s not. Oh, it’s streets ahead of the usual Luc Besson-produced rubbish that keeps getting made, but it’s nowhere near the deep-dish drama he thinks it is. Taken for the lightweight entertainment it is, though, it’s enjoyable enough. Rated R for strong violence, language and some sexuality/nudity.