Out of all the reviews that I have done, by far the toughest to complete are the ones relating not to the films I love, or to the films I loathe, but to the films that just should have been so much better. Sometimes it is a real shame to see the amount of wasted potential in a half-hearted, ham-fisted, misguided production which boasts a good cast and a halfway-decent story. These projects must look so good on paper, but whatever that tragic slip between cup and lip sometimes leaves the end result a shocking failure on many levels.
Killer Elite unfortunately falls into this category. Not to be confused with the 1975 film of the same name by Sam Peckipah (itself a massively flawed effort, untimely ripped from the Director’s grip to become a derivative product of Studio blunt force trauma), this 2011 project is based on the 1991 novel “The Feather Men” by Sir Ranulph Fiennes. Fiennes is actually a renowned adventurer, who is probably best known for his record-breaking feats of endurance – he journeyed around the world on its polar axis using surface means only, and recently became the eldest Brit to have climbed Mount Everest (and, in doing so, the only man to have ever crossed both Poles and climbed Everest) – but he was also in the SAS. Seconded to the Sultan of Oman’s Army around the time of the early 80s oil crisis, his unit got up to some pretty nasty stuff. For their country, and all that. A decade on, Fiennes published his book, which detailed how his actions in Oman had left him and a group of other SAS veterans, on the hit-list of a rich and powerful Sheikh. The Sheikh wanted revenge for the deaths of his sons, and commissioned “The Clinic”, a group of elite ex-Special Forces mercenaries, to eliminate the soldiers responsible, ordering that their deaths be made to look accidental so as to avoid reprisals from the West. Fiennes was purportedly on that hit-list, and he wrote about how he was saved by another clandestine group of soldiers, “The Feather Men”, who were also ex-SAS, and who sought to put a stop to the actions of “The Clinic”. Whether or not his tales were completely factual was very debatable indeed, but, at the very least, they made for a good story, particularly when painted against a backdrop of political machinations and tension because of the then-imminent oil crisis.
Can you see just how good this story could have been if it was adapted for the Big Screen in a semi-professional fashion?
Jumping on the bandwagon we had the likes of Clive Owen and Robert De Niro, so expectations were set even higher. However with the announcement of a debut Director helming the piece, and of action-star Jason Statham’s involvement, things started to go somewhat awry. Reports came out about how De Niro was only on set for 10 days, and then there was a great deal of internet confusion about who exactly was good and who was bad in this piece – after all, from the limited description above it seems clear that “The Feather Men” were supposed to be good, so why was Jason Statham pipped to be the heroic mercenary facing off against Clive Owen’s supposedly villainous member of “The Feather Men”? By the time the previews started to come out, I was expecting the worst, and the trailer certainly did not disappoint in that respect, depicting the movie as little more than just another generic, throwaway Jason Statham action-vehicle, albeit with Clive Owen and Robert De Niro on board. Still, I just could not pass up the opportunity, however brief and anticlimactic the moment may be, of seeing De Niro kicking ass and taking names, for the first time in over a decade (sorry, I don’t count his horrendous re-teaming with Pacino for Righteous Kill, showing none of the magic they had back in Heat and tainting both their film histories by starring in a film with none other than Fifi Cent). With my expectations set to zero, and my brain shifted into neutral, I went into this piece assuming the worst, but secretly praying for a miracle. So, was it really that bad?
The story basically follows the same plot as the book, but more firmly states it to be based on true events, imposing upon us an opening coda which gives a (very) brief background into the imminent oil crisis and the 1980 setting. We are introduced to mercenaries Danny (Jason Statham) and Hunter (Robert De Niro), who are on a mission to assassinate a prominent Mexican official. The mission, of course, does not go quite according to plan, as Danny is forced to kill the official right in front of the man’s young son. His subsequent anguish over this leads him to retire to Australia, where he strikes up a relationship with a childhood sweetheart. It’s not long before he is called back into the fray, however, when he finds that his mentor, Hunter, has been taken hostage by a prominent Sheikh, who wants Danny to assassinate the SAS soldiers who killed the Sheikh’s son, otherwise Hunter will be executed. Reluctantly Danny agrees, and enlists a team of fellow mercenaries to help him carry out the killings. Despite being under orders to make the deaths look accidental, Danny’s actions draw the attention of a group of clandestine ex-SAS soldiers called “The Feather Men”, who see the threat to their men, and seek to stop it. To this end they dispatch their head operative Spike (Clive Owen) to end the bloodshed... with more bloodshed.
It would be easy to rest a great deal of the blame for this botched action thriller at the doorstep of the debut Director, Gary McKendry, whose handling of the material is clearly quite questionable. Without a doubt, had this production been in the hands of somebody more experienced, it would have turned out considerably better, but, for a debut director, what more could we have really expected? Working with limited funds, on quite a restrictive timescale, he appears to have done the best that he could, but the end result still leaves a lot to be desired. Rough around the edges in the extreme, there is so much wrong with this piece which could easily have been forgiven, were it not for one fatal mistake: the miscasting of the characters. Yes, it’s not the actors even who are really to blame here, but the interpretation of the story.
As I surmised earlier, the original source novel told of a group of mercenary assassins sneaking around knocking off SAS men on their home territory, at the whim of a vengeful Sheikh. It also posited a clandestine group of ex-SAS soldiers who were determined to stop this dastardly plot. Surely it seems from these statements quite clear-cut who the good guys are and who the villains are? Casting aside, the story should have surely followed the exploits of the mysterious ‘Feather Men’ who are here to protect Her Majesty’s own? No, for some peculiar reason the filmmakers decided to play it the other way: the mercenaries are the good guys, and the ‘Feather Men’ are an unauthorised and unpleasant bunch who are seeking to take them down. This would have been fine, but there really is no getting around the fact that, for whatever reason (in this case the fairly feeble excuse that the lead character, Danny, is trying to save his mentor, Hunter) the purported ‘good guys’ are going around taking out unsuspecting, ostensibly innocent SAS soldiers in increasingly elaborate ways. That’s not good. Is it even for the greater good? Well, no, not really.
In one scene we see Danny, and his too charismatic but clearly more amoral cohorts tie up an SAS grunt in his own home, with a view to cracking him over the back of the head with a hammer coated in the same kind of tiny tiles that his shower is made out of. The undeniably clever plan is to make it look like he slipped and cracked his skull on the tiles. Ingenious. For a serial killer. Which is essentially what these guys are. And clearly Danny is supposed to be the more sensitive man of the bunch – after all he left the business in the first place because of his conscience – but leaving the room just so his mates can set upon the incapacitated victim off-screen does not alleviate his innate complicity in the horrific murder.
As the story progresses, and the bodies of innocent SAS soldiers mount up, you actually feel sorry for Spike, the ‘attack dog’ of the ‘Feather Men’, who is kept on an extremely tight leash by his slimy superiors, who all purport to also be ex-SAS, but have been hanging around an oak table in business suits for far too many decades to be all that far removed from the omnipotent Sheikh, who can order executions seemingly at the wave of his hand. Spike looks like a nasty henchman – unshaven, moustached, with scars across his face and a glass ball from where he ‘had his eye shot out’. You know that you’re supposed to be rooting for Danny when the duo go mano-a-mano for fisticuffs in a hospital kitchen, but that’s purely because Danny has been painted as the good guy – the character who we know the most about, and who we have followed for the entire narrative. But it’s Spike who we should be cheering on; he is a loyal soldier, who hasn’t sold himself out, who does not kill innocent people, and who is merely trying to stop more soldiers from being executed. Can you see the dilemma here?
It is not as if Killer Elite even attempts to paint things in shades of grey either. We aren’t dealing with the murky, intelligent depths of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, another period-set spy thriller, which much more effectively deals with real characters and real espionage. This is a film called Killer Elite. It has a trailer which boasts action super-star Jason Statham leaping across rooftops, with explosions reigning out around him, breaking heads and shooting bad guys. There is no subtle character development on offer here. Hell, there’s no subtlety at all. And I don’t mind that one bit – I’m the guy who still watches Steven Seagal and Van Damme movies, after all. I enjoy films like Tinker Tailor, but I also enjoy films which are called Killer Elite, and have Statham running around with a gun kicking people and spouting terrible one-liners. None of this would have been bad or out of place in a decent actioner – as stated the numerous faults of this movie could have easily been forgiven – were it not for the odd good guy / bad guy decision. A simple good-if-shady ‘Feather Men’ pursue clever and vicious mercenaries plot would have worked.
I think that this harks back to Sir Ranulph Fiennes’ book of course. Cousin of Ralph, his book was unusual less for its purported founding in real life events, and more for its massive character-shift in the final act. It’s something that they attempt to do in the movie as well, but only end up making things extremely confusing in the final 15 minutes. Seriously for a film which really isn’t all that long, there is altogether too much throwaway jet-setting and too many false endings and eleventh hour twists for it to be an enjoyable ride. You would be hard pushed to figure out who was doing what to whom for what reason, and pretty-much give up on trying to explain any of it.
But, I hear you say, isn’t this an action-film? “Who cares about plot?” you ask. Fair enough, but this is not a standard actioner. Anybody familiar with another of this year’s Statham ‘actioners’, the surprisingly different Blitz, will know the sort of direction this film is going in. Sure, there is action in it, but there is also plot, characters, and drama. Or so we would be led to believe. Otherwise why on earth would we have to wait so long before the next bit of ‘action’ takes place? Unfortunately, if you were to switch your brain off and completely overlook the fact that the lead ‘hero’ is whacking innocent Brits in their homes in serial-killer like ways, and just watch the film for its action, there really is not enough to justify your time. What there is, is generally well-staged: the prologue ambush is exciting enough, the initial escape attempt is quite fun, and the aforementioned Danny vs. Spike fight is also engaging (albeit shot in a very dark, murky style that makes it hard to quite make out what is going on), but that’s all you really get in over 90 minutes. That’s not enough for an action movie. Even one set in the 80s.
I know many will want to hear about the actors involved, because it’s the names that will surely garner the most interest in this piece: Jason Statham, Clive Owen and Robert De Niro. Statham still knows how to do these kinds of movies (Most notably the enjoyable Transporter trilogy, although The Mechanic was pretty disappointing) and never feels like a fish out of water, but his biggest problem is trying to make a sympathetic lead character out of a guy who is committing unforgiveable acts. There is only one proper resolution for his character – only one outcome for him upon finally completing his tasks and recovering his best friend from the kidnappers – but, alas, this is not that kind of movie. Character arcs be damned, Statham’s the good guy just because the producers say so. And that’s the end of it. Clive Owen, not unfamiliar with action (The International, Shoot 'Em Up), tries his absolute best not to come across as a caricature, in spite of a marginally silly moustache and far too little screentime. Thankfully he keeps his head above water for the most part, delivering some of the most fun lines, and acquitting himself surprisingly well in hand-to-hand fisticuffs with The Stath. It’s just a shame that his has quite obviously been told that his character is supposed to look like, act like and behave like a standard movie henchman: a tough villain but little more. Perhaps with a more experienced Director this character could have more effectively slipped under the audience’s radars to become the fully-rounded, more multi-dimensional entity that he is clearly supposed to be.
There are also a couple of marginally important roles for the likes of Yvonne Strahovski (a beautiful Australian/Polish actress who tries her best despite her limited part as Danny’s somewhat hapless girlfriend) and Prison Break’s Dominic Purcell. Purcell actually sports a moustache which is even more ridiculous than the one Clive Owen has, and it does not do his credibility any good whatsoever, which is a shame because his is certainly one of the more fun characters. Boasting none of the delusions of contrived conscience which Statham has to bear, this is perhaps Purcell’s finest hour (although, given his film history – Blade: Trinity? – that’s not hard).
Then there’s De Niro. Well, he was the one who I expected to come across the least well in this piece, but, as it turns out, he’s ok, which is great news when you consider that he has been fairly effectively wasted in the last few movies that he has cameo-ed in – Limitless and Machete – in spite of the fact that the films themselves weren’t half bad. Here he looks cool, looks in pretty good shape, gets a few halfway decent lines, and is given the opportunity to semi-steal most of the scenes that he is in. Even if he is in nowhere near as many scenes as any self-respecting De Niro fan would want him to be in, he gets a lot more screen-time than I would have expected from a 10-day shoot. He gets to play the wise old mentor, crack a few heads, and perform one of the coolest shots of the movie. He also appears to be the only character who you can wholeheartedly get behind. Sure, they play up the fact that he is ‘in it for the money’ but the only reason his character has been incarcerated by the Sheikh in the first place is because he refused to actually do the job which Statham’s Danny then proceeds to do, namely, kills a bunch of innocent SAS guys. It’s because of this drawing of the line, that De Niro’s veteran, Hunter, survives the piece as the most engaging, human and sympathetic character to be around. When we see him breaking bad guy’s heads, we are wholeheartedly behind him every step of the way. And wow is it cool to see that he’s still got it. He also appears to be the only member of the cast who is really enjoying the role, something which was also the case with the comparable De Niro spy-action-thriller, Ronin, over a decade ago (although there at least Jean "Leon" Reno got in on the action). Indeed Ronin was an exercise in providing effective, efficient action with characters who, whilst ostensibly shady mercenaries, were generally quite engaging, and still fairly obviously divided into good and bad; and a plot which, whilst fairly twisty-turny, at least knew how to deliver a satisfactory pay-off and eleventh-hour twist. Why they couldn’t have done the same thing with Killer Elite is beyond me.
At the end of the day, there was a hell of a lot of promise in Killer Elite; it looked amazing on paper, and boasted a great cast and a promising story based on a clever novel. Yet left in the hands of a debut director and a debut screenwriter things went (understandably) awry. The end result, unfortunately, is a film that few – whether you be action fans, thriller fans, or just fans of the cast – will love. In fact, many will find very little to even like about the whole thing, and a fair few will probably loathe the overall ineptitude of the production. Personally, I couldn’t forgive the cold-blooded murders (of innocent Brit soldiers) that the ‘hero’ committed, and therefore never really got behind him for the entire piece, which left it impossible to appreciate as anything other than a botched sum of so-so elements. And a huge wasted opportunity. Still, I got to see De Niro kick ass and take names, and, arguably, that alone was worth the price of admission.
If you want to see Robert De Niro on the Big Screen, kicking ass, shooting people and stealing scenes in a straight action-thriller, for the first time in over a decade, then Killer Elite delivers... up to a point. Almost everything else about it is lame and ineffectual, handicapped by its own mishandling of the source material upon which it was based – a purportedly true story of mercenaries, assassinations and a league of ex-SAS soldiers with a shady agenda – and poorly delivered by the debut director and debut screenwriter, who really should not have been handed the keys to this brimming-with-potential project. As an outright Statham action-vehicle there is simply not enough action, and his lead character is near-impossible to get behind given the heinous acts that he carries out on innocent people; as a cleverer-than-average action-thriller, the more intelligent plotting and character development is similarly derailed by ineffective twists and inexcusable plot holes. Both Statham and the generally reliable Clive Owen do not appear to have a clue as to which one of them is playing the good guy, nor which is supposed to be bad – and audiences will similarly be confused; this kind of confusion may work in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, but, despite the 80s period setting, this is not the thuggish cousin of that thinking-man’s spy thriller. No, Killer Elite is a fatally flawed action thriller with brief moments of standout action, some clever individual scenes, a couple of unexpected plot twists, and a generally cool contribution from Robert De Niro (the first in years). If you really have nothing better to do, this would work as a Saturday matinee kind of affair, but with so much better on offer at the moment (Tinker Tailor, Drive, and – hopefully – Warrior), it would probably be best to just wait for this on Blu-ray. A disappointing waste of potential.
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