Robert De Niro. Jason Statham. These are two iconic names that, alone, have carried some of the best tough-guy blockbusters. Toss in the second-tier talent of Clive Owen, and you've got an unstoppable action triumvirate.
It's a pity, then, that "Killer Elite," an early-autumn blast of muscle that stars all three, is such a by-the-book affair. Master thespian De Niro has slinked too comfortably into supporting roles for the better part of two decades now. Here, he gnaws on as much scenery as he can playing a veteran assassin named Hunter who gets kidnapped by a sheikh (Rodney Afif).
But since Hunter is literally tied up a good portion of the film, the teacher becomes the student, ceding his cinematic luster to increasingly popular Statham. His new-school, video-game energy (the "Crank" movies, "The Mechanic") is muted in "Killer Elite" somewhat. His character, Danny, is a woeful apprentice of Hunter's that retreats to the Australian farmland with a lovely lady (Yvonne Strahovski) after a sting in Mexico flounders. He kids himself that he's content to lift heavy objects for the object of his affection, but there remains a paranoid intensity in him. He's been told that he was born to maim.
That innate gift (curse?) fully surfaces when Danny is called to retrieve Hunter. Reluctantly, the younger rogue dons his "hide me from the world" sunglasses and tarries to Oman.
Though he could fight the sheikh's guards in his sleep, Danny gets wrapped in some dirty business that Hunter just couldn't carry out. The vengeful sheikh wants the wily Danny to assemble a team tasked with eliminating the forces who killed his sons. From there, these elite slayers globetrot with guns blazing -- like in so many espionage films before them.
Clive Owen portrays Spike, a true thorn in the sides of Danny and his men (Dominic Purcell, Aden Young). A former British Special Air Serviceman, Spike makes it his imperative to foil this coup. But the high-strung warrior is no good at keeping allegiances, so his own elite faction abandons him early on, concerned that they're all too old and important to continue the malarkey.
Spike gnashes his teeth and ruffles his bandit mustache so much, he feels more like a Wild West villain than an elegantly trained fighter. It's disappointing to see Owen, who showed such skill in "Children of Men," become such a hotheaded caricature.
Of course, there's not much to work with, regarding the script. Though "Killer Elite" is loosely based on the allegedly true story "The Feather Men" by Ranulph Fiennes, some of the world's most deft action heroes are forced to spew the tritest of lines. When Danny laments, "Killing's easy. Living with it is the hard part," it's forgivable for one to hit his head against the seat in front of him in disgust.
But where wittiness fails, choreography rocks. Applause to greenhorn director Gary McKendry and the stunt coordinators for capturing one of the coolest fight scenes all year. (It involves Owen, Statham, an additional baddie and a chair.)
But cool isn't enough these days; an action outfit has got to have integrity, too. "Killer Elite" is just too bland to bother with.
"Killer Elite." Rated R. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes. 2 stars.
Written by Melissa Bobbitt