Alternate Title: Action by Numbers
One sentence synopsis: A retired mercenary must assassinate several ex-SAS operatives to save his partner's life.
Things Havoc liked: Clive Owen is a bad motherfucker. Jason Statham is a bad motherfucker. And Robert DeNiro is the original bad motherfucker. Between them all, there is a recipe for an excellent action movie here, and I'm pleased to report that what you see is essentially what you get. Killer Elite is a meticulous, complex action film wherein our heroes beat the piss out of one another in reasonably inventive ways.
As action is a relatively important element of an action movie, I must report with some satisfaction that the action here is of top quality. There's very little in the way of superhero tricks, no shaky cam or new-edge cinematography bullshit getting in the way, just basic, competent action camerawork, and the scenes that we get are executed well. The plot is serviceable, if not anything groundbreaking, but it does do a nice job of establishing the bad guys both as an effective force in their own right (we are talking SAS here, after all), and in giving them a more complex motivation than simply "we are evil and must do more evil." Clive Owen's character in particular (he plays a former SAS turned dirty-tricks man for a cabal of other former SAS men) is even given some depth.
Things Havoc disliked: The word "formulaic" comes to mind here constantly, which is perhaps a bit unfair, as the movie really isn't that much of a formula. It does however have an astonishing lack of empathy to it, despite the aforementioned gestures in the direction of good characterization and villain establishment. First off, this movie continues to prove my assertion that Jason Statham should only play assholes. His attempts to emote things like regret and compassion are just not convincing, and never have been. The man is an excellent action star, but charisma is not his forte. By far, the best thing I've ever seen him in (Snatch), knew this. This movie does not.
Second, this movie is a complete waste of Robert DeNiro. His character is locked in a jail cell for the majority of the first and second acts. When he breaks out, he gets a couple of decent scenes, but they are only decent because he is in them, not because they're integral to the plot or well-written. It's clear that the filmmakers were trying to come up with something for him to do just so that they could headline him in the film credits.
The plot is labyrinthine and fairly absurd, but that I mind less. What's annoying is the third act "revelation" of how (surprise surprise) the government is evil and doing evilly evil things for the sake of being ever so evil. We did not need a ham-fisted recitation of the hard-bitten life of a mercenary or ex-soldier. This is not Platoon, guys, get over yourselves.
Final thoughts: Honestly, this movie is about what you think it is, a reasonably well-executed action vehicle for Statham and Owen. There are some sequences (the whole section with the remote control truck and the following scenes in the container park for instance) that are elevated by good camera, plotting, and stunt work. The majority of the film however really never rises above "decent". Not a condemnation, certainly, but nothing to write home about.
Final Score: 6/10