A measure of my disinterest in this Stath-starrer is that I’d assumed it was a dodgy remake of the 1975 Sam Peckinpah film. Perhaps as a consequence of lowered expectations, the result isn’t the quite the mess that the peculiarly matched cast suggests. In particular, the first half proves to be a pleasant surprise; the fuilm only becomes mired in more predictable action and convoluted plotting during the last hour.
An adaption of Sir Ranulph Fiennes novel The Feather Men, a tome disowned by the Ministry of Defence but initially claimed by Fiennes to be based on fact, it posits the idea of a shadowy group of former SAS men who act to ensure the safety of their own. The film’s starting point is a revenge operation initiated by a Sheikh whose sons were killed by the SAS. The mighty Stath is coerced out of retirement to take the job when buddy Robert De Niro is held hostage. He gets a crew together but finds the job anything but smooth running as the Feather Men’s heavy (Clive Owen) intervenes.
On the most surface of levels, Gary McKendry’s debut put me in mind of one of the Stath’s better outings; ‘70s-set caper The Bank Job. Although taking place nearly a decade later, the period trappings are worn on the sleeve by both films. McKendry dives wholeheartedly into early-‘80s hair, cars and fashions. The same can’t be said for Statham’s anachronistic designer-stubble, Nevertheless, his apparent predilection for tough man period pieces is to be welcomed. At it’s best, the milieu lends a lo-fi grittiness to the proceedings.
Unfortunately, Matt Sherring’s dialogue is never less than ripe. If the builds-up to the assassination attempts are solid, he makes a series of blunders around the 90-minute mark from which the film cannot right itself. Not least of these is a bout of exposition where the entire plot is revealed in the worst Bond villain fashion. There are also far too many instances of the “heroes” allowing characters to live for reasons of plot expediency rather than commonsense (there’s a sketchy moral code at best going on here).
And the over-complicated intrigues are not of the intellectually taxing, John Le Carré, variety. Not enough work has been done to make this engaging; we see little of the mechanics of the secret society, so it’s hard to really care when the revelations come. It’s also difficult to believe anyone would take the “based on a true story” tag seriously, even with the appearance by “Ranulph Fiennes” in a crucial role; in the end it embraces bombastic action too enthusiastically to claim realism.
McKendry occasionally falls prey to ill-advised stylistic choices (shakycam punch-ups) but also stages some highly impressive sequences; a gripping chase involving a truck stands out. The Stath does his Stath thing, while De Niro banks his cheque as usual. Clive Owen isn’t especially effective (I’m not sure he convinces as this kind of hard man) but his role’s not up to much. Walking away with the film, though, is Dominic Purcell as one of Statham’s crew. Prison Break only called on him to act the noble hunk, but here he revels in a rowdy, larger-than-life character.
It’s a shame Killer Elite spirals into action movie clichés, but there was always something off about the casting anyway; it’s a clash of types and styles that doesn’t exactly have carefully honed prestige project written all over it. The end titles are a total Bourne rip-off too, suggesting further tonal confusion somewhere about just what sort of film this wanted to be.