REVIEW: De Niro, Statham and Clive Owen in a Pizza-Guy Mustache: So This is the Killer Elite?
What do you call an action movie manned by people who look as if they don't want to be there? An inertia movie? Action movies aren't just about action -- they're also about presence, about watching appealing or compelling personalities go about the business of kicking ass. Killer Elite features one proven action star, Jason Statham and two actors who have played fewer action roles, Robert De Niro and Clive Owen. But it's all these actors can do to look present and accounted for. The picture, the debut feature of Irish director Gary McKendry, is rote and joyless, an exercise in disposability.
It didn't have to be that way. The idea is basic but solid enough: Special-ops guy Danny (Statham) has to rescue his kidnapped former partner and mentor, Hunter (De Niro), from the sheik who's kidnapped him and imprisoned him in Oman. Spike (Owen), a hit man from an opposing top-secret group of former Special Air Service guys -- let's forget for a minute that they hand out business cards emblazoned with their logo -- is dispatched to put the kibosh on the rescue. The premise -- McKendry and Matt Sherring adapted the script from Ranulph Fiennes novel The Feather Men -- at least offers plenty of opportunities to blow stuff up.
But the violence in Killer Elite doesn't register as exciting or disturbing or anything. It's business-as-usual violence, including some not-very-interesting hand-to-hand combat, a few sequences featuring desultory use of firearms, and guys running and shouting. You don't need good actors for that. You don't need actors, period -- why not just use avatars?
If nothing else, Killer Elite proves that it doesn't really matter who you cast if the filmmaking is just more of the same old choppily edited, noisy action crap. De Niro's character spends most of the movie out of sight, locked up in a room somewhere. De Niro isn't bad in the 10 or 15 minutes of screen time he's got -- he puts his crazy twinkle to good use, and he does get to fire a machine gun, which is probably a lot more fun for him than playing Pops Focker for the umpteenth time.
Statham and Owen are fine, too, except neither of them can answer the movie's essential question: Why bother? I'm not sure the best way to use these two actors is to throw them into a blur of grappling, grunting, head-bashing and attempted scissor-stabbing, which is how they first come together. As we already know from movies like Croupier, The International and Children of Men, Owen has much more to offer: He could have been an action anti-hero with soul, if only the script, and McKendry, had found a way to let it shine through. In Killer Elite, he's just stuck wearing a pizza-guy mustache.
And Statham, so wonderful in Roger Donaldson's The Bank Job -- a picture that asked more of him than just cracking heads together, though he's at least capable of cracking heads together with elan -- desperately needs to break out of the reluctant-action-hero mold he's been locked into. I've lost count of how many movies require Statham to play a killer with a heart, a simple guy who just wants to retire to a luxe cabin in the woods somewhere, maybe with a nice girl. (In this particular instance, she's played by the reasonably appealing Yvonne Strahovski.) Luckily, we don't have to give up on Statham just yet: He's been cast as Parker, the taciturn, weirdly principled character created by Richard Stark (a.k.a. Donald Westlake), in an upcoming adaptation directed by Taylor Hackford. Meanwhile, there's no good reason to watch him limping along in undistinguished pictures like Killer Elite. If he's going to kill, at least let him be killer.
[Portions of this review appeared earlier, in a different form, during Movieline's coverage of the 2011 Toronto Film Festival.]