Gary McKendry’s violent, double-barreled spy thriller “Killer Elite,” though pretty outlandish, claims to be based on actual events—recounted in Ranulph Fiennes’ book “The Feather Men.” But its credibility is undermined from the very beginning, if you accept the premise that partners Danny (Jason Statham) and Hunter (Robert De Niro) are among the best operatives in the business. In the prologue, they mount an assassination attempt on some unnamed bad-guy, who’s riding in a limo preceded by a car filled with bodyguards. The plan is a complicated one, involving blowing up the first car with a remote-controlled explosion and then taking out the occupants of the second with guns.
The natural question is: why go about it this way? Why not simply blow up the second car? That would seem a far more efficient way of completing the mission.
But then you wouldn’t have a movie, because the result of the opening assault is that Danny leaves the trade for a quiet life. The reason is that in taking out the passengers in that car, he hesitates on finding a child among them and is wounded as a result. But it’s not the injury that convinces him to retire; it’s the thought that he might have killed an innocent.
Of course stone-faced Statham is hardly an actor able to express such complex emotions—his range barely goes from A to B—so you have to take his motives on faith. In any event, the plot kicks in when Hunter is taken prisoner by an Omani sheik-in-exile (Rodney Afif), who demands that to secure his friend’s release, Danny must kill the members of a British special squad that were responsible for his overthrow, and for the deaths of his older sons in the process. And he must make the killings look like accidents.
So Danny puts together a crew—Davies (Dominic Purcell) and Meier (Aden Young)—to identify and eliminate the men. In doing so, however, he quickly catches the attention of Spike (Clive Owen), an ex-member of the special squad and the chief enforcer for a shadowy group of powerful men (called “the feather men” because their influence can barely be felt) who—it would appear—are ex-squad men secretly in control of government policy and anxious to keep their dirty linen hidden. So Spike takes aim at Danny and his boys just as they systematically take out their targets. Many action-filled set-pieces naturally ensue, including a major dust-up between Statham and Owen in a restaurant kitchen, a desert chase through what appears to be an old oil pipeline, and a face-off in a building being refurbished that includes some swings down great tarpaulin sheets.
It’s all very exciting but also extremely silly in a Luc Besson-ish way. It’s familiar territory for Statham, who’s done this sort of mindless thing multiple times in the “Transporter” movies and elsewhere. Owen, much the better actor, for some reason seems drawn to such garish, pulpy nonsense from time to time (see “Shoot ‘Em Up”), and he scowls and growls a lot between the action scenes. And then there’s De Niro, who’s really slumming here. He seems to be having much more fun making threats (even in captivity) and blowing folks away with automatic weapons than we do watching him do it. Purcell and Young savor their scenery-chewing moments, but as Danny’s girlfriend Yvonne Strahovski doesn’t quite persuade us that she’s a simple farmgirl.
“Killer Elite” has the grimy, faded look that so many of these Euro-action pictures favor—another inheritance from Besson, I fear. Its visual and narrative emptiness is almost beyond comprehension, but there seems to be an audience for such brainless actioners out there, so if this is your cup of polluted water, drink away.