Film Review: Killer Elite

Mercenaries target ex-SAS agents who committed Middle East atrocities in a confusing, unsatisfying action thriller.

Based on a 1991 book by Ranulph Fiennes, Killer Elite pits mercenaries against British ex-secret service agents in a battle over Middle East oil. That's what the filmmakers want you to believe, although the movie really boils down to who can snarl better: Jason Statham or Clive Owen. Their fans will have to forgive a lot for the film to have more than a modest impact at the box office.

A prologue in 1980 Mexico establishes mercenary and former special-ops agent Danny Bryce (Jason Statham) as a killer with a conscience because he won't shoot a child during an assassination. When his former partner Hunter (Robert De Niro) is abducted, Bryce comes out of retirement to rescue him. As ransom, Bryce must eliminate three SAS agents who killed an ailing sheik's sons.

That's where ex-SAS agent Spike Logan (Clive Owen) comes in. A member of a shadowy SAS fringe group known as "The Feather Men," Spike keeps watch over former agents who might be the target of assassination attempts. Spike's suspicions are alerted when an ex-SAS helicopter pilot dies in a mysterious accident in his shower.

To take out his second target, still training with SAS troops, Bryce assembles a team including the hot-blooded Davies (Dominic Purcell). The mercenaries learn that they are being tailed by Spike's men, as well as by another group of quasi-governmental agents. Spike even confronts Bryce as the mercenary is stealing drugs from a hospital, leading to a prolonged fight with scissors, broken bottles and other implements.

Bryce's third, even more complicated hit has disastrous results. After freeing Hunter, Bryce finds himself embroiled with Spike in further killings, leading to an extended chase over London rooftops that is the film's action highlight. Drawn into the plot: Bryce's Australian girlfriend (Yvonne Strahovski), who hides out in Paris while mercenaries and agents gather in London.

The filmmakers claim that Killer Elite (which apart from disappointing viewers bears no connection to the 1975 Sam Peckinpah movie) is "based on a true story," a convenient excuse for a narrative that is alternately clumsy and preposterous. Screenwriter Matt Sherring spends too much time on irrelevant logistics while failing to flesh out his characters. It's never clear what Bryce's plans are, so the film builds almost no tension or suspense. The action recalls the bad old days of Menahem Golan–Yoram Globus potboilers for The Cannon Group, down to the relentless, throbbing score and the largely anonymous supporting cast.

Against the odds, Statham remains an appealing screen presence, apparently no matter how weak his vehicle. Owen and De Niro elevate their scenes effortlessly, the former giving his character a maniacal edge, the latter displaying his action chops in a convincing takedown of a Parisian hood. But sitting through the dispiriting, logy Killer Elite will only remind you that the stars have made much better movies.