At some point in the script stage, Killer Elite had the potential to be a good movie. It takes two opposing characters that have equally valid, noble motives and pits them against each other. Unfortunately, that interesting premise is drowned by paper-thin characters, idiotic writing, action movie clichés, and dull set pieces. Even as a generic action movie, it falls far short of its low bar.
Danny Bryce (Jason Statham) is a mercenary who has gotten out of the game after realizing that working as a mercenary may involve splattering a child with the blood of his or her parent. Unfortunately for Danny, he’s pulled in for one last job when his mentor Hunter (Robert De Niro) is kidnapped by an angry sheik who demands the deaths of the SAS operatives who killed his sons. In order to save Hunter, Danny recruits his former partners Davies (Dominic Purcell) and Meyer (Aden Young) to help out and starts tracking down the retired SAS men. However, this doesn’t sit too well with a shadowy organization known as “The Feathermen” who want the SAS operatives protected and task their “attack dog” Spike (Clive Owen)—and that’s the character’s real name, not a code name—to investigate and stop the killings.
It’s a solid premise executed as poorly as humanly possible. Since Statham is a robot capable only of physical beatings and gravel voice, the film forces him to feel bad about killing and fondly remembering his girlfriend Anne (Yvonne Strahovski). Meanwhile, the film trusts a real actor like Owen enough to deny his character a back-story and he still delivers his performance with enough compassion and commitment that you end up rooting for Spike more than Danny. But everything between them is just punching. There’s no conversation, there’s no understanding of motives, there’s no emotional conflict. It’s just two guys slamming each other into furniture and having it shot as terribly as possible.
I would like all aspiring action directors to repeat after me: “I am not Paul Greengrass and this is not a Jason Bourne movie.” Action directors have discovered that on a tight budget and an even tighter shooting scheduled, it’s easier to simply choreograph a few punches at a time, hold the camera with a paint mixer, and call it “gritty realism”. Director Gary McKendry makes matters worse by shooting his unimpressive fights and car chases with a washed out color palette even though the story takes the characters from London to Paris to Oman. It’s doubly unfortunate that McKendry badly wants to give his film a “realistic” look but completely ignores any realism in the legitimate conflict of his lead characters.
Of course, McKendry has to work with an atrocious script that never met a cliché it didn’t want to run into the Earth’s core. How do you make Danny more relatable? A pretty, concerned, and one-dimensional girlfriend! How do you make the bad guys look sinister? Make sure they’re impeccably dressed! And the scene where the Feathermen explain who they are should be shown in every screenwriting class as an example of how not to do exposition. It’s shockingly bad how the Feathermen tell each other the organization’s history, motives, and influence. I wanted a character to pipe up “Who are you talking to? We don’t need a refresher on the organization we’re in charge of.”
Not satisfied with underdeveloped characters, lazy writing, and boring direction, the film is packed with idiotic details. The Feathermen chose the name because they “work with a light touch.” That light touch includes their own business cards sporting a gigantic feather and agents that carry out their missions by smashing up their cars, firing their guns in public, and engaging in endless fisticuffs with their opponents. Of course, Danny and his team aren’t much better as they constantly botch their kills, and rather than show that they’re “the best of the best”, they’re the “alright of the kind of okay.” Throw in gigantic plot holes and extraneous characters who only to serve to make the story even more convoluted and Killer Elite proves that even when you aim low you can still fire wide.