Mrs. Speculator and I made it to a movie theatre this past week. There is a new Jason Statham movie out, so of course we had to go see it.
If you've seen the trailer or any commercials for Killer Elite, you already have a pretty good idea what's going on: Jason Statham and his mentor, Robert De Niro, up against Clive Owen. The trailer is full of Statham performing martial arts at a rate not unlike his Transporter movies and some piercing stares from Owen, all of which we've come to expect. And honestly, how they end up in this situation is not terribly important; the movie even teases the viewer by telling us it is based on a true story, and there is the ubiquitous printed epilogue before the final credits, but it's just padding unless the backstory gets your hackles up and you decide to use your google fu. In a nutshell, Statham is an assassin who has given up the life because he is tired of killing, but De Niro is kidnapped and to free him, Statham must perform three more assassinations. Owen is a self-appointed protector of Statham's targets and has a volunteer organization supporting his efforts.
The movie works on a lot of levels—as you would expect, the fight scenes are exciting and well-choreographed as they almost always are with Statham. But the movie allows for twists in the fairly standard formula, such as each of Statham's targets must appear to have died in an accident, so there is a caper movie element regarding the machinations Statham and his crew use to get to the victims. And the commercials and thumbnail description above strongly imply that Statham is just a mercenary while Owen is on the good team, but the backstory throws that all into doubt: Statham's Danny is the more thoughtful and perhaps more ethical of the protagonists since he is only doing what he has to do to save his friend. And the backstory makes it clear that the men he is hunting are deep into gray ethical territory. So Owen's Spike is actually more ambiguous that Danny as he single-mindedly pursues Danny and his team. The movie even bludgeons the viewer with the moral twist: given two protagonists named Danny and Spike, who is usually on the side of the angels?
Killer Elite is not all chasing and fighting as the PR makes it appear. Instead, Statham and Owen work to push their characters beyond the stereotypes that lure viewers into these kinds of movies. Statham especially must persevere his rather clichéd character and ends up somehow making it something more; as his mentor tells his girlfriend (played by Yvonne Strahovski), "Everyone likes Danny." The writing of his character is firmly entrenched in the "assassin with the heart of gold" mode, but Statham falls back on the physical and facial acting that served him so well in the excellent The Bank Job to give his character depth that the words he has been given cannot convey. Owen's Spike is more unconventional, a fervent believer in the cause, and his monomania dominates the screen when Owen lets it out. By himself, Spike is not intimidating, but the force of his belief is frightening by the end of the movie. And when Danny and Spike are together on the screen, the chemistry is amazing as the dialogue snaps and crackles with their electricity. This kind of face-to-face scene is along the lines of what was expected of Al Pacino and De Niro in the otherwise amazing Heat.
Another delight is Dominic Purcell's Davies, a sort of sidekick of Danny's. The movie is set in the early 80s, and Davies seems to exhibit every attribute of the macho Brit stereotype from that time. His moustache is just ludicrous and his carefree abandon belies the smart assassin that lies beneath. I enjoyed Purcell's work in John Doe lo these many years ago and really had no interest in anything he's done since (whether it be Prison Break or Primeval), but he certainly goes beyond the fairly flat John Doe to a rich characterization that offers a Falstaffian foil to Danny's brooding.
But to be clear: once the slightly convoluted framework for Killer Elite is laid out, it follows out the clichés nearly to their bitter end. Danny really doesn't have a lot of time to brood on his ethical quandary, and any screen time that could be spent on that is used to make sure that we understand he has a girlfriend who proves he is better than the life he has led. In fact, Strahovski's Anne really is nothing more than a serial plot device: first she is used to show Danny's compassionate side, then as a threatened target to ensure he does what he is told to do. Crisper writing would have gotten her character out of the movie altogether, making for a tighter movie. There is something of a minor twist in the final scene, but it is not fractious and not terribly unexpected given the characterizations of the protagonists throughout the rest of the movie.
Mrs. Speculator and I walked away from the theater deciding we had enjoyed the movie. Though it is far longer than the stereotypical action picture it markets itself as, I never felt bored. Like most action pictures, one should not go in expecting great acting. But Killer Elite does enough—especially allowing Statham, Owen, and Purcell to fully inhabit their characters—that it rises above the usual assassin/action movie fare. It's not beautifully filmed and the soundtrack does not overwhelm, but it is still something more than a summertime popcorn movie and worth finding if you have a couple of hours to spare.