Oct 20, 2011

Movie Review: Killer Elite (2011)

Movie Review: Killer Elite (2011)

Killer Elite tells the supposedly true story of a 1981 showdown between a team of professional assassins (led by Jason Statham's Danny) and a team of ex-SAS officers (led by Clive Owen's Spike) known as the Feathermen (so named for their light touch), all elite killers. (It's loosely based on Ranulph Fiennes' "non-fiction novel" The Feather Men.) The circumstances that lead these groups to battle each other are rewardingly convoluted, but the overall gist is that a wealthy sheik exiled from Oman wants revenge for the deaths of his three sons in a conflict in which the British weren’t officially involved. He’s somehow gotten the names of the SAS soldiers he thinks killed them. Danny is the best assassin in the world, but he’s inconveniently retired, having sworn off killing after a child got in the crossfire during a botched Mexican assignment. So to lure him out, the Omani sheik kidnaps his former mentor, Hunter (Robert De Niro—surprisingly not just phoning it in!) and uses Hunter's liberty as leverage to force Danny to track down and kill each of the men on his list. However, the sheik doesn’t want to incur retribution, so he must make each death look like an accident. Spike, however, isn’t fooled. He’s the operational leader of a secret society of ex-SAS soldiers sworn to protect their own. So when he hears about strangers asking questions about Special Forces soldiers who were all on the same Omani mission, he gets suspicious and activates his network. Spike and his men attempt to protect the Oman veterans, while Danny and his men attempt to take them out, setting the two British action heroes on a collision course.

It may seem like an odd choice, given this scenario, to focus on the assassin (Statham) rather than the former soldier (Owen) as the protagonist, since Owen seems like the ostensible good guy here. But upon reflection, it’s a very good choice. Assassin movies generally focus on the proverbial “one last job,” and show their heroes trying to get out of the business in order to make them relatable. Danny is already out, but he’s forced back into the game in order to protect the people he cares about: first Hunter, and then his young fiancé, Anne (played by Chuck’s Yvonne Strahovski, using her own Australian accent for once). Thereby, the assassin gets our sympathies, while at the same time the nobility of the SAS in that undeclared war in Oman is called into question. The result is a film without any clear “good guy” (“Some good guy,” Owen says of himself after behaving in an un-good-guy-like manner), but opposing killing machines in shades of gray, both of whom you want to root for—not in the least because of the appealing stars playing the roles. Other characters operating in the same gray area include Danny’s and Hunter’s untrustworthy boss (Lost's Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), who brokers hits, and a mysterious MI6 man who just might be pulling everybody’s strings to achieve his own dubious ends. The latter character gets a great entrance, especially for spy fans. He lands in an unmarked helicopter to meet Feathermen boss Commander B (The Man From S*E*X baddie Nick Tate, driving a Silverbirch Aston Martin DB6) and, when asked his identity, snidely explains, “I’m the guy they let fly around in an unmarked helicopter with a gun in his pocket, but you can call me Mifwig—Motherf#cker What’s In Charge.” (I know, the acronym doesn’t quite work, but it’s fun!)

Those expecting a straight-up Statham action-fest along the lines of his neo-Eurospy Transporter movies or Crank may be disappointed. This is a rather sprawling tale of intrigue that has more in common with The Bank Job or Steven Spielberg's Munich—though it’s not quite on the level of either of those films. (In fact, it reminded me quite a lot of Spielberg’s story of a team of assassins set in the same general period—even if the motives for this team aren’t nearly as noble.) For me, that made it all the better. The Cold War setting is well-realized for the limited budget, and Australia does an ample job standing in for far-flung locations like Oman, Dubai, Wales, Paris and London.

That’s not to say, however, that there isn’t some typically awesome Statham-style action as well. In one early scene, Statham gets to demonstrate some patented lightning-fast moves when he attacks a guard with a teacup. In one of the most badass (if not entirely plausible) moments of in-the-field ingenuity I’ve seen this side of Bourne, he then proceeds to grab a loaf of French bread and tear it in half. What’s he doing? Is he hungry, in the middle of a battle? No, he’s improvising a silencer! Statham sticks his small-caliber pistol entirely inside the loaf of bread (along with his hand) and uses it to muffle his next shot at close range! (Actually, maybe that’s not so far-fetched as other movie silencer moments. I suppose the bread would effectively diminish the sound of escaping gasses, and at such close range it wouldn’t seriously affect his accuracy.) Later on, we get two different versions of the Statham-vs-Owen showdown we’ve been waiting for (their first go is interrupted), with the second one resulting in that shot you’ve no doubt seen in the trailers where Statham manages to disarm his opponent and then flip backwards out of a window all wile tied to a chair! I’ll grant that moments like this awkwardly stand apart from the more serious ones and make it rather difficult to believe the film’s claims of being “based on a true story,” but Jason Statham is one star who can actually pull that off. We expect that kind of move from him, and therefore adjust our sense of disbelief accordingly.

Director Gary McKendry struggles a bit with the pace. All that globe-trotting seems to slow things down a little rather than speed them up. Still, the film is drenched in the atmosphere of its era, and that—coupled with three very compelling leads—goes a long way. It’s no masterpiece, but Killer Elite is still a rewarding viewing experience for spy fans and Statham fans, occupying a middle ground somewhere between the sublime excess of Transporter 2 and the grounded speculative history of The Bank Job.


Delmo said...

I concur with your review, though I think the movie should've been called "The Feather Men" so that people won't think this is a remake of the earlier "Killer Elite".

Tanner said...

Yeah, I agree. It was an odd choice to use a title that had already been used for a totally unrelated concept... that already had a good title of its own!

movieman said...

I have seen a lot of films with Jason Statham in it and ı can say whatever film he is in, that film is a great success. The blitz is a good example to these films, and the crank series as you all well know.......This film is definitely another success.

Anonymous said...

The reason the quote doesn't work for you is because you misquoted. The actual quote is, "I’m the one they let fly around in an unmarked chopper with a gun in my pocket. You can call me MFWIC."