There are few things quite so sad as a film whose premise and cast promise awesomeness but whose execution falls flat on its face. “Killer Elite” should be a ton of fun — it’s an international assassin flick starring Jason Statham and Robert DeNiro as assassins and Clive Owen as an ex-SAS officer trying to stop them. There’s enough badassery in just those three actors that this should have been a blast of a film. Unfortunately, it’s not. It has all the flaws of old-school 80s action flicks but none of the charm.
A sheikh is dying in exile and wants his three murdered sons avenged. When old-timer assassin Hunter (DeNiro) won’t take the job, he’s held captive and used to strong-arm his onetime student Danny (Statham) out of moral-crisis-induced retirement to do the gig. The assignment turns out to be killing several SAS officers — paranoid, highly-trained special forces guys living in London. It’s a suicide job, but Danny loves his old mentor and rounds up some friends to go do what needs doing.
Seems like a good start, right? Predictable but fun if it’s done right. Unfortunately, “Killer Elite” is not done right. With the notable exception of DeNiro, who looks as relaxed and affable as if he were out sightseeing, the movie is filled with actors who seem convinced they are in a serious film. Statham is pretty much always intensely serious, which works in over-the-top ridiculousness like “The Transporter” and “Crank,” but here it just adds to the overall sense that nobody is aware the film they are in is not exactly “Masterpiece Theater.” Consider: this movie contains a scene in which Statham, while tied to a chair, does a backflip and incapacitates an enemy. It includes ridiculous and exciting fight scenes, painfully cheesy dialog, and a vast governmental conspiracy. This is not an art flick.
It’s a pity, really. The fight scenes are a lot of fun, but everything else about the film is off kilter. The cinematography and set dressing are gritty and grey, but the dialog is straight out of a goofy 80s flick (“I’m done with killing.” “But maybe killing’s not done with you!”). The performances are all deeply serious, but the film has all the subtlety of a sledgehammer.
Had every element in the film gone either one way or the other, it could have worked. Grittiness, high production values, and serious performances at every turn works. Cheesy dialog, ridiculously awesome fight scenes, and Jason Statham works. Unfortunately, all those elements together just don’t gel into a satisfying whole.
It wouldn’t have taken much to push “Killer Elite” out of serious-business failure and into over-the-top success, but without that push, it’s just a muddle. If all you care about is watching Jason Statham beat people up, it might be worth seeing a matinee. Otherwise, skip it.