Despite some superficial similarities including a nearly identical title, two hunky midlist lead actors and a storyline about a shadowy ring of international assassins, this is not a remake of the 1975 Sam Peckinpah film “The Killer Elite.”
No doubt, somewhere in the recesses of an intellectual-property attorney’s hard drive, there resides a legal brief outlining, for indemnification purposes, all the reasons this new film constitutes a distinct entity from its titular progenitor. Such a document easily could prove more entertaining than this jumbled, hackneyed mess of a thriller.
Even moviegoers predisposed to enjoy fair-to-middling international espionage thrillers (and I count myself among them) likely will find “Killer Elite” at best disappointing and at worst a poorly executed formulaic star vehicle. Despite its globe-trotting settings, thoughtful 1980s period details and the presence of two eminently likable leading men in Jason Statham and Clive Owen (with Robert De Niro in a key supporting role), the movie is distinctly unlikable for its murky plot, action cliches and dialogue so wooden it wouldn’t pass muster as interstitial patter in a first-person-shooter video game.
Mr. Statham plays Danny, a talented but conflicted assassin who loses his taste for killing after nearly executing the young child of a target. (“Killing is easy,” he says. “Living with it is the hard part.”) But, as is so often the case in these matters, Danny can’t stay retired for long. His mentor, Hunter (Mr. De Niro), is abducted by an Omani sheik looking for revenge for the killing of his sons in a secret war.
If Danny doesn’t get back in the game - and extract recorded confessions from his targets - Hunter will die. Danny’s targets are members of the United Kingdom’s elite Special Air Service. The storyline - a hired killer targeting special forces veterans to answer for atrocities - seems cynically spun to play to lucrative overseas markets.
Mr. Owen plays Spike, the link between the SAS and a shadowy group of moguls called the Feather Men, who manipulate British foreign policy to advance their business interests. With his tacky leather jacket and mustache, Spike is the embodiment of the colonial apologist and also a savvy operator who quickly sniffs out Danny’s role in the actuarially improbable uptick in unexplained deaths among retired SAS members. The two are set on a collision course of the last-man-standing variety that suffers from a lack of suspense, credible action and a rooting interest on either side.
The murky conspiracies driving the plot are likely meant to evoke morally ambiguous 1970s political espionage dramas such as “The Parallax View,” “Three Days of the Condor” and, yes, “The Killer Elite.”
But “Killer Elite” lacks the solid script, dramatic pacing and intellectual heft of the first two of these films, and the intense, cinematic violence of the Peckinpah film.
TITLE: “Killer Elite”
CREDITS: Directed by Gary McKendry; written by Mr. McKendry and Matt Sherring based on the novel “The Feather Men” by Ranulph Fiennes.
RATING: R for intense violence, strong language and nudity
RUNNING TIME: 105 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS