By Dr. Craig D. Reid
First off it’s not even close to the original far out film of the same name that Sam Peckinpah did back in 1975, which featured a dirty performance by Robert Duval, a gritty portrayal of mercenary CIA agent Mike Locken by James Caan, and a brutal handling of defending Chinese dissident Yuen Chung (Mako) against Japanese ninja hired to kill Yuen thus preventing him from returning to China to make a social difference.
When that Killer Elite (1975) came out, it was the first big American film since Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon (1973) that had A-list actors (Caan, Duvall) and an A-list director (Peckinpah) attached to a story that had martial arts as part of the film’s motif. For martial arts movie fans in America back then we were chomping at the bit for anything decent and so Killer Elite tried to deliver karate, kung fu, samurai, ninja, hapkido cane skills and taiji (tai chi) all in one Hollywood blockbuster hit.
The honesty of the film, whether it was intentional or not, was that from a martial arts point of view, Caan’s lead character Mike learned martial arts not for self-defense or hurting someone, but to overcome physical disabilities born after being shot in the arm and leg. It exemplified the tenet that martial arts is ultimately about learning to heal rather than fight as Mike does not use his fighting skills anywhere in the film.
The new Killer Elite is an action-adventure spy film based the on the non-fiction novel “The Feather Men” by Ranulph Fiennes, which of course the story is touted by the British Government, MI5, MI6 and the British Special Air Service (SAS) as a bunch of codswallop or as they say in England today, bullocks.
So anyhoo (a term oft used in the true-life 1996 dark comedy-crime film Fargo), set in the 1980s, Killer Elite follows two very dangerous men, retired assassin Danny (Jason Statham) who is brought back into the game by his old mentor Hunter (Robert De Niro). Hunter has been kidnapped by a powerful but deposed Middle Eastern sheik. Thus lured out of a self-imposed exile, Danny reassembles his crack team of operatives to execute a near-impossible mission of retribution to rescue his former mentor and partner Hunter. Together they must penetrate the highly feared and respected military unit, the British Special Air Service (SAS), to take down a rogue cell of soldier assassins and their leader Spike (Clive Owen) before their actions create a global crisis.
Back to the opening statement… dirty, gritty, brutally honest film.
The movie has a dirty sense of musty claustrophobia within the sandy confines of an end of the road Middle Eastern quasi-village in Oman. Whenever anyone dies throughout the film, and there are some truly gut wrenching assassination scenes, they’re brutally dirty like a kick in the groin 40 years ago, where back then to kick someone in the groin during a fight was considered dirty.
Perhaps Statham’s pseudo-strength is also a complaint in this movie. He’s becoming an English version of Clint Eastwood, not in the sense of great acting and line delivery, but similar to Eastwood, Statham has only one way to deliver a line and two faces to deliver emotion using a voice that sounds like a hoarse throat coated in sand and glue.
For Eastwood, we don’t get sick of it because he knows how to choose his roles, but Statham seems to be going with the money flow not really worrying about what the role is about. But then again, who would turn down the chance to work with De Niro. Well, Eastwood has.
On a weird observation, why is De Niro doing this kind of supporting role, playing essentially the third fiddle to a back country band that only needs two, Statham and Owen? The irony is that De Niro has all the funny one-liners and also doesn’t don any of those typical faces that we associate with him when he plays these kinds of action ventures.
The characters of each star is neither a challenge nor a stretch, where certainly the art form of acting is not about dedicated skill but a paint-by-numbers picture that is running low on good quality oil paint.
What’s so honest about the movie? The action. Pedestrian, nothing new and nothing creative, yet director Gary McKendry resists the urge to tap into Statham’s martial arts film experience and fight choreographer Chan Stahleski’s knowledge of over the top Hong Kong action (he was a choreographer on The Matrix), and kept the fights brutal and brutally honest.
But true to American and European directors and editors that don’t know how to shoot and edit a good fight scene, the action is incomprehensible, as you can’t tell what the heck is going on. Instead we are confronted with loud sound effects, close shots of crashing into things and herky-jerky camera work style amid clichéd spy movie set ups that include taunting phone calls, threatening the hero’s loved one, and rooftop and car chases that reflect loose cannons in a world dotted with plenty of gunpowder.