It takes a special kind of assassin to kill an assassin — or so posits “Killer Elite,” a macho, adrenaline-fix suspenser that plays like the bigscreen equivalent of those pulpy spy novels that once clogged grocery-store checkouts. No surprise, considering this well-oiled genre item was adapted from Ranulph Fiennes’ “The Feather Men,” a fictionalized memoir — or “true adventure,” per his pubbery’s PR department — in which a secret society mobilized to protect four British SAS vets marked for death. Pitting stubble against grizzle as Jason Statham and Clive Owen go head-to-head, Open Road’s first release has the makings of an international hit.
With no connection to the Sam Peckinpah film of the same name, “Killer Elite” instead mirrors the earnest approach to genre storytelling seen in “The Bank Job,” as the same producers tap their bullet-headed star to topline another gritty period piece. After a showy public execution goes terribly wrong in Mexico, ruthlessly efficient trigger man Danny (Statham) calls it quits and disappears on a farm deep in the Australian bush — that is, until a “this time it’s personal” twist calls him back in action: His former partner, Hunter (Robert De Niro), has been kidnapped by an Omani sheikh (Rodney Afif) who agrees to release him only if Danny does a little contract work pro bono.
One of the reasons “The Feather Men” was considered scandalous upon initial publication was the way it exposed Britain’s secret involvement in Oman — a dirty war against the spread of communism in the Middle East. “Killer Elite” rather hilariously depicts ex-SAS soldier Spike (Clive Owen) sitting at a table of fellow veterans. All but he have moved on to high-level business and banking jobs in the U.K., but they still meet from time to time for … what, tea and crumpets? “What we did was questionable,” one growls, thinking back to the embarrassing Oman business. “No one wants blood on our pinstripes,” another concurs.
So the sheikh orders Danny to kill the men responsible for murdering his sons, demanding that he record on-camera confessions before easing them gently into that good night. Meanwhile, these Feather Men — so called because their touch at geopolitical puppet-mastery “is light as a feather” — are sworn to protect the same chaps the sheikh wants dead. Clearly, not all parties can get what they want, which makes for some pretty solid pyrotechnics once Danny and his boys, Davies (Dominic Purcell) and Meier (Aden Young), set to work arranging a series of grisly murders carefully designed to look like accidents.
Coming off the artful, intense Oscar-nominated short “Everything in This Country Must,” director Gary McKendry brings a similar mix of nervous energy and polished technique to his feature debut, selling the thriller’s sillier moments — as when Danny, strapped to a chair, escapes by somersaulting through an upstairs window — via a combination of brisk pacing and sheer bravado. At its most hackneyed, Matt Sherring’s script recycles the idea of an assassin who swears he’s seen enough killing for one lifetime, to which an agent helpfully offers, “Yeah, well, maybe killing ain’t done with you.”
According to the pic’s philosophy, 2% of the population are natural killers. Danny has the gift, and running away to the Australian outback (awkwardly written in to appease Oz producers Omnilab) won’t cut it. Even there, off the grid, evil men can trace him, leaving ominous warnings in the form of bullets on the pillow of his g.f. (Yvonne Strahovki, ridiculously stunning to play a remote farm girl).
Although Danny’s crisis-of-conscience feels awfully insincere in a movie where all involved seem to love a good tussle, it does serve to make his assignment slightly less off-putting. Between Danny, Spike and the ex-SAS targets, there are no good guys here, just varying degrees of skill and ruthlessness. Strangely, Fiennes himself factors in as a character — the mission’s last target, whose book the sheikh sees as a confession and whose execution serves as a perfect opportunity for Danny and Spike, having already set the bar high in an earlier car chase-cum-fist fight, to finally settle their differences.
Auds will form their own allegiances, according to which actor they prefer, and McKendry satisfies both camps by making the two men more or less evenly matched. Room for a sequel is not only possible but likely, with considerable care taken in finding exotic locations, re-creating the 1980 period feel and delivering an overall muscular experience.