Currently Jason Statham is the reigning king of the run-around-and-shoot-things-until-something-explodes genre. He doesn't have a great deal of range but he doesn't need to—pile a few insane action set pieces around him and let his clenched teeth beady eyes and grunting do the rest. At its worst he can deliver purposefully over-the-top ADD-ridden circuses like Crank. At his best stylistic surface-level heist flicks like The Bank Job.
Statham's latest movie Killer Elite manages to squander his potential in favor of being boldly drab choosing political intrigue and hammy espionage devoid of intensity over anything remotely fun. The picture introduces us to Statham's Danny a mercenary in cahoots with a ragtag team of killers: Hunter (Robert De Niro) Meier (Aden Young) and Davies (Dominic Purcell). After a fumbled mission in which Danny takes down a nameless suit in front of his horrified son the bald gunman leaves his less-than-legal lifestyle behind and heads back to his honey Anne (Chuck's Yvonne Strahovski) in Australia.
A decent setup with above-average action segues quickly into Killer Elite's floundering plot: Danny receives word a year later (or a few months? A perfect timeline/logic isn't the movie's priority) that Hunter has been kidnapped by the Sheikh of Oman and in order to get him back he'll have to slip back into his old assassin ways to knock off three members of an elite British military force (the SAS) who reportedly killed the Sheikh's son. After a lengthy heart-to-heart with the imprisoned Hunter Danny accepts the mission and reteams with Meier and Davies to eliminate the ex-SAS operatives.
Not often do you beg a film to dumb itself down and get to the fistfighting but Killer Elite's so caught up in the "real life" of the SAS the veteran masterminds known as "The Feather Men" (a table full of grandpas who puppeteer the military squad with "back in my day" anecdotes) and their involvement with Oman politics that it never allows itself to unfold as a slick thriller. Clive Owen does his best to shake the film to life as the only youthful member of the The Feather Men: a one-eyed obsessive badass sworn to protect the targeted SAS members. Thankfully he makes for an excellent antagonist to Statham's loyal killer. In the very few moments they share together Killer Elite wakes up—you've seen a moment of it in the trailer where Statham fights Owen while tied to a chair—but even then the fact that they're having the skirmish doesn't click with the rest of the film.
The performances are Killer Elite's saving grace. While De Niro gives a masterclass in phoning it in (there's literally a scene in which he runs off with a briefcase of money) everyone else appears to be trying their best to make the dense material something worth watching. Dominic Purcell is the stand-out his mutton chopped womanizing renegade giving a handful of scenes a necessary comic edge. Director Gary McKendry nails the scenes where Statham's team plans and prepares with witty banter but when it comes to action and interweaving the story's many perspectives the film becomes a muddled mess.
Killer Elite is the definition of average—which feels especially unsatisfying when you realize the talent involved. De Niro and Owen are Oscar-nomianted actors. Statham's been set on fire while headbutting an AK-47-toting gangster. The real mystery of this film is why this didn't amount to something watchable.