Movies are meant to provoke an emotional response in the viewer. Without that, what good are they? "Killer Elite" tests out this theory with plenty of gunfire, all of them blanks. Allegedly based on true events but adapted from the novel "The Feather Men" by Ranulph Fiennes (how's that for an oxymoron?), the film dives head-first into a plot that might have enthralled and excited were it not for writer-director Gary McKendry's and co-writer Matt Sherring's complete botch job of the material. Who, exactly, are these characters, and why should the audience care about them when they have the depth of popsicle sticks? Why hinge an entire narrative around a man held hostage who has been improperly met and established, seen frivolously shooting up several people early on and given no back story in order to understand what his motives are or why he deserves to earn our sympathy? By working from his own junky script that can't even match the heft of a paperweight, McKendry's unfortunate first feature becomes a series of empty-headed, apathetic fight and chase scenes with nothing to hang them on.
When a hit in Mexico proves to be too much to handle, Special Ops Agent Danny Bryce (Jason Statham) lets his feelings be known instantly: "I'm done with this," he says. "I'm finished, I can't take this anymore." A year later, however, he's called back into action when his mentor, Hunter (Robert De Niro), is captured and held hostage in the Arabian Peninsula by grief-stricken oil magnate Sheikh Amr (Rodney Afif). He wants Danny to find the assassins who killed his sons and make them pay with their lives, or else Hunter's as good as dead. "I'm done with killing," Danny tries to explain. "Well, maybe killing's not done with you," replies the string-pulling mastermind known as The Agent (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) with one of the oldest cinematic lines of dialogue in the book. As Danny's murderous mission takes him from London to Paris and back again, he is tracked by the slick, conniving Spike (Clive Owen), leader of the secret Special Air Service military society responsible for the deaths of Amr's sons.
Like an overstuffed vacation where you spend so much time running from one place to the next that you barely get to breathe in the surroundings, "Killer Elite" globe-trots in the most useless fashion possible. It's not about aesthetics, and it's certainly not about people, so the film settles on a lot of chaos and whirring bullets. Thank goodness for the opening title text, which informs the viewer right off the bat that "the world is in chaos." Point taken. Tag-teaming cinematographers Simon Duggan (2009's "Knowing
") and Alain Duplantier (2010's "Point Blank") have both done accomplished workthey know their way around a camera, let's just saybut they are beaten into either submission or indifference here, their images somehow flat, bland and ugly even when what's on screen should pop. The dull look is appropriate only in the respect that it matches the humorless tone. There's no life or humanity to what happens, the characters rote and developmentally emaciated as they go through the paces.
Judging by the immobile trajectory of his career, Jason Statham (2011's "The Mechanic
") will probably never be accused of stepping outside his comfort zone. Virtually every film he's ever made has been a crime-centric drama/action/thriller, all variations on the same basic premise. He's fine at what he does, but what he does is getting mighty old, a been-there-done-that chore with each new movie he stars in. All that is learned about Statham's Danny Bryce is his desire to break free of his violent profession and settle down with Anne (Yvonne Strahovski), a piece of work herself right off the uninspired conveyor belt of throwaway love interests. Anne plays most of her scenes working blemish-free in idyllic fields while wearing cute sundresses and nagging Danny to tell her what he does for a living. Then, toward the end, with no warning or rhyme or reason, she has a change of heart and tells him, "I don't care about the past, I just care about now." Uh-huh.
As Spike, Clive Owen (2009's "The International
") is given nothing of interest to do or say. What could have possibly drawn him to this direct-to-video-level fare? Helping none is his resemblance to co-star Dominic Purcell (2007's "Primeval
"), a cause for occasional confusion. And then there's Robert De Niro, who has apparently turned in recent years to sullying his reputation with near-exclusive bad pictures. When he's not embarrassing himself in incompetent would-be comedies like 2010's "Little Fockers
," he's gracing us with extended cameos in forgettable thrillers like 2011's "Limitless
" and even worse ones like 2008's "Righteous Kill
." De Niro's work this time consists of him mumbling while looking serious, pointing guns, and scurrying in and out of dank rooms while being held captive. He reportedly shot the film in ten days; it looks more like three.
"Killer Elite" is a waste of time and resources. There's a fight scene or two that hold onto their coherence, and at least one effective stinger when a character is crossing the road and, well, if you've seen other movies before you know what happens to him. That's about it for the compliments. As Danny goes about taking down his targets to save his former partner, he sneaks onto private military bases while wearing fatigues and poses as doctors in hospitals complete with nurses walking up to him for advice who don't bat an eye over having never seen him before. If the film had any sense of fun and more of these silly shenanigans to go around, maybe the project could have been overhauled and turned into the male equivalent of 2000's irreverent "Charlie's Angels
." No such luck. "Killer Elite" is dour and hollow, one busted car hood away from sheer catatonia.