Review: “Killer Elite”

1. I'm always a little surprised that Jason Statham isn't a bigger star, at least in America. (Like most action stars, particularly ones with accents, he's huge internationally.) Over the last 20 years, Sylvester Stallone, Jackie Chan and Arnold Schwarzenegger have been among the biggest movie stars on earth, and we've even awarded action star status to stiffs like Steven Seagal, Jeff Speakman, Chuck Norris and Steve Austin. Really, just check the "Expendables" cast list, which of course is part of the problem; that's Statham's most popular American film, by far, thanks to his proximity to the stars of yesterday. But Statham is better than that: You can make an argument that he's the platonically ideal action star. It's not that he talks so little, though he does; it's more than he only talks when he has to, and he's sort of constitutionally unable to utter a syllable that doesn't make you firmly believe he is either about to kick your arse, or making plans to. You know what it is? He looks smart. When he's quiet, it looks like he's thinking. I can't say that for Sly.

2. "Killer Elite" doesn't require Statham to do anything out of his comfort zone, and thank heavens for that. (You don't have to worry about Statham remaking "Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot," that's for sure.) But the reason it's probably the most satisfying Statham film since "The Bank Job" is that it gives him an opponent who's worthy of him and a sidekick who might be one of the best actors in the world. That helps. "Killer Elite" isn't particularly ambitious, it's a little overlong and its constant double-crosses and double-double-crosses lose a little steam (and sense) by the end. But it finds actors who know how to play off Statham and gives them characters who aren't complicated, but have no trouble matching Statham's hulking intensity. It's a muscular and fun little ride.

3. Statham, like all paid assassins who aren't the bad guy in movies, plays Danny, who has quit the killin' game to retire on an Australian farm with a beautiful woman who also looks convincing hauling hay out of a truck. (Some place, Australia.) He leaves behind his partner Hunter (Robert DeNiro, who should never, ever play characters named "Hunter"), who, a year later, gets him kidnapped by an Omani sheik who holds him hostage until Danny comes out of retirement to murder the English Special Air Service agents who killed his three sons during a war. Statham reluctantly gets together a team to take out the SAS guys, and he runs into Spike (Clive Owen, who, come to think of it, probably shouldn't be playing characters named "Spike," either), a one-eyed, essentially crazed former SAS agent who is as smart as Danny and fiercely dedicated to stopping him. The three men essentially circle each other around the globe, from Oman to Paris to London to Mexico to any other foreign market to which Open Road Films might sell distribution rights.

4. You might notice something from that thumbnail plot synopsis: Statham, in a macro sense, kinda isn't the good guy. Sure, he's trying to save his friend and get back to retiring on his farm with the hay and the pretty lady who bales, but he also is basically assassinating British war heroes, men Spike reveres and vows to protect. The movie doesn't go too far down this path -- there is way too much kicking and machine-gunning for this to be a mournful treatise on the fog of war -- but it's an added level, anyway. Mostly, it's just fun to watch all three men. Statham is in prime form; he does a little flip while tied to a chair that seems sort of impossible, and there's a terrific sequence on a series of London rooftops. DeNiro has as much fun as he has had in a while -- I'm trying to remember the last movie before this one where he didn't look bored; "The Good Shepherd," maybe? -- and there's a certain cathartic kick you get from watching him beat the crap out of a guy. And Owen, who has action star chops of his own, is reliably rumpled and obsessed as the retired agent who wants back in, to fight wars no one else is fighting anymore. He's put more thought into this role than he probably had to.

5. Add it all up, and it's a fun little actioner that has more going on than you might suspect and has the added bonus of featuring its fight scenes in just about every location on the globe other than America. (DeNiro has a neat gunplay scene in the Paris Metro.) It doesn't ask much of the audience, and nor should it: This is a series of pictures of men planning, running, punching, shooting, kicking and scowling at each other. Statham does that as well as anyone. I'm trying to figure out how to get him to break through in America. Maybe he needs to add some body fat; it's possible he's so inhumanly jacked that we can't relate to him. Of course, in America, we hire Tobey Maguire and Seth Rogen to play superheroes, so you can have your relatability. I'll take the mass of muscle glowering at dudes he's about to tear apart.

Grade: B