Killer Elite is a guy's movie and makes no bones about it. It's an old-school, straight-no-chaser action picture about a former CIA agent who hunts down assorted troopers from the British Special Forces to save an American agent from a vengeful Arab.
The film's hook is that it pits Jason Statham against Clive Owen, the two marquee names among the current generation of British action stars.
Statham plays Danny, a former CIA assassin blackmailed out of retirement to hunt down Spike (Owen) and his British Special Forces, or SAS, colleagues as payback for a mission they took part in long ago. Robert De Niro is Hunter, who used to be Danny's boss. He's being held hostage by an Arab sheik intent on revenge.
That sends Danny hither and yon, rounding up his own "team," trying to take out guys nicknamed "The Clinic," men who are just as lethal as he is. Danny and his crew must make the murders look like accidents, so there will be no reprisals. Standard killer-for-hire stuff, in other words.
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But what sets Killer Elite apart from, say, your typical stubbly-faced Statham B-movie action flick is the dialogue — reams of crisp, punchy hardboiled lines that co-writer/director Gary McKendry and screenwriter Matt Sherring cooked up or copped from the 1991 novel The Feather Men by Ranulph Fiennes (cousin of Ralph and Joseph).
"I'm done with killing," Danny mutters.
"Maybe killing isn't done with you," Hunter mutters back.
"Killing's easy. Living with it's the hard part."
Government red tape and restrictions dog the hunters and the hunted. "I've got no problem with blood. It's ink that worries me."
Thinking of double-crossing Danny? Maybe going into hiding afterward? "Remember, everybody gets found."
And there's this pithy lecture on old soldiers: "No uniform. No war. You're not 'Special.' They don't know what to do with you. You don't know what to do with yourself."
McKendry, new to feature films, wanders a bit, giving us government intrigues, a love interest for Danny (Yvonne Strahovski) and other distractions. But he handles the assorted "hits" with gritty, period flare. The film is "based on a true story," so the setting is the early '80s — a "time of crisis, revolution." That makes it something of a parable for our times, men sent to do a dirty job for their government, only to have their government back the other side years later.
It's hard to see the victims as particularly deserving of their fate. And that lack of a sense of "righteous kills" creates an unease that strips Killer Elite of some of its cool. The actors cast as Danny's and Spike's "teams" are generic. More effort might have given us a reason to root for or against them, and not against the rich sheik who set off this whole killing spree.
But it's a decent yarn, decently told, a tough-guy film built around veteran screen tough guys. Best of all, the filmmakers took the time to give these hard men just the right things to say — not catchphrases, just lines that smell of blood and gunpowder every time Statham, Owen or De Niro utter them.