'Killer Elite' Makes Audiences Suffer
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
It would be pretty weird if this month were to see not one, but two remakes of films originally directed by legendary and troubling cinematic maestro Sam Peckinpah hit the screens. So it's with a slight sense of relief that I report that this "Killer Elite" is not an update of Bloody Sam's rather goofy 1975 James Caan/Robert Duvall starrer, which means that the unfortunate "Straw Dogs" is the only Peckinpah remake we have to consider this month, and for some time afterward, unless that rumored remake of "The Wild Bunch" gets on the fast track.
No, this "Killer Elite," we are told right before the end credits, is based on a book by former British Special Air Service (S.A.S.) operative Ranulph Fiennes (no relation, I presume), a book called "The Feather Men," which I haven't read but which I presume pulls the lid off of a lot of special forces-type covert ops and other awesome but not morally right things involving oil sheikhs and stuff. Fiennes himself actually appears as a character in the film; the circumstances leading up to this appearance, while simplistic, would be pretty tortuous to describe. My point is that the source material, which places the action in 1980 (the film's only sliver of wit is a text at the beginning of the film designed to signal to the viewer that we're talking of The World As It Is Today -- plus ça change, and all that), would appear to be the stuff of a striking and complex geopolitical thriller, Jason Bourne crossed with vintage John le Carré, maybe. What we get instead is just another damn killer-for-hire film, one that makes this year's remake of "The Mechanic" look like "The Godfather," frankly.
Like "The Mechanic," "Killer Elite" stars Jason Statham and surrounds him with a couple of formidable male leads of arguably greater pedigree, Robert De Niro and Clive Owen. It's not just because I'm a Statham fan that I say he comes off the best of the three. De Niro, playing the old-school espionage and assassination mentor whom Statham's character is, of course, forced to get out of a bad jam, phones it in as is his wont. Owen, as another ex-S.A.S. man working to foil Statham's one-last-job happening, seethes with such unspecific rage that you almost wonder that he's venting over being stuck in such an aggressively desultory mess of a film.
And quite the cliché-ridden desultory mess it is, too, from its opening set-in-Mexico assassination sequence in which the conscience of Statham's killer is aroused by the surprise reveal of a terrified young boy sitting next to his victim. It's funny; people always complain about how lame the "it's a f---in' puppy" bit in "Apocalypse Now" is, and yet filmmakers keep replaying it anyway. And so it goes on, complete with Statham romancing a gorgeous but steely young innocent who Knows Nothing Of His Work but is eventually Sucked Into His World Against Her Will.
Director Gary McKendry, helming his first feature, has a visual style pitched somewhere between slipshod Paul Greengrass "shaky cam" with a little extra added stutter zoom for more "realism" (resulting in shots that would get thrown out of the editing room were this an actual, you know, documentary) and Olivier Megaton bombast with all the adolescent giggliness -- that is, sense of fun -- sucked out of it. The result is a pretty tedious sit for about an hour and a half, with the final 20 minutes (I know, right?) growing almost tolerable as Statham and his stunt guy contrive all manner of kicking and punching and hanging off things. But for the most part, this movie is entirely too much "The rules? There are no rules!" and "It all ends today" and "Let's finish this" and hardly near enough Jason S. kicking the crap out of people.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.