Jason Statham and Robert De Niro - surprise - in a tangle of violence.
If there's anything sadder than a routine bad film, it's an ambitious bad film. "Killer Elite" is such a case, a machine gun actioner aiming to put a smart new spin on its garish, clichéd genre. With a B+ cast and a script full of pseudo-profound moral complexities, its aspirations are lofty and its achievements are trifling.
The film shares a title and theme with Sam Peckinpah's 1975 spy film, and features a similarly self-sabotaging tangle of plot. Like its predecessor, the new film concerns undercover operatives fed up with the amorality of their calling, but finding it difficult to make a clean getaway. The film stars Jason Statham and Robert De Niro, who make the oddest pair of buddy spies since Chris Rock and Anthony Hopkins battled terrorists in "Bad Company."
The opening act has the pair assassinating a Mexican kingpin before the horrified eyes of a child, a snafu that inspires Statham to glower, retire to a tumbledown Australian farm and take up with a sweet-natured neighbor (Yvonne Strahovski).
His happy ending is put on hold when De Niro is kidnapped by a sheik. In exchange for his release, the chieftain demands that Statham kill three English military men who killed three of the sheik's sons. Statham recruits a team, begins eliminating the targets in amoral fashion, and growls "Killing's easy. Living with it's the hard part." His actions draw the attention of Clive Owen, an equally tough clandestine agent, leading to several head-slamming showdowns. Unlike Statham's character, Owen's is driven by righteous fury. He has been given one dead eye -- symbolism alert -- representing his moral tunnel vision. He hasn't yet realized that the goals of the organization employing him are as dirty as their methods. He reaches his moment of alienation long after audiences will reach theirs.
The locations in England and Jordan are garbage-strewn, skuzzy and glamourless, a comment on the grubbiness of private-contractor mercenary work and the shadowy corporate/government power systems that employ it. Director Gary McKendry, who co-wrote the script with Matt Sherring, seems to think he's offering an adult take on high-caliber, high-explosive Tony Scott hackwork. The lack of a single, clear-cut villain is a rebuke of action movie conventions, but the mess of overlapping betrayals and paybacks never yields a satisfying climax. The film does offer one moment of twisted pleasure, though. In his last scene, De Niro's character gleefully stuffs his pockets with dirty money before running for the hills. It's a warped commentary on the latest paycheck cameo role for a once-great actor. It's a good, possibly intentional, joke. Too bad the laugh's on us.