Killer Elite


I have to admit something: Killer Elite looked like a very bad idea when I first saw the posters.  “A shameless Jason Statham vehicle,” I thought.  However, after seeing Yvonne Strahovski’s name in the top four billing slots, as well as reading that the film was inspired by Ranulph Fiennes’ controversial book, The Feather Men, a story he claimed was a nonfictional account of his rescue by the Special Forces from a group of assassins, my interest was piqued.

My initial instinct was half right, though I must admit, the film exceeded my expectations.  It is only marginally based upon Fiennes’ book; the story and characters are pure invention.  It’s a bit smarter than most action fare, though, lacking a maniacal arch-villain and the usual quota of explosions.  Statham plays the central character, Danny Bryce, an ex-mercenary blackmailed into one last job: assassinate a group of ex-SAS members.  The job is given by a Dubai Sheikh whose sons were murdered by the ex-SAS members during the Oman war.  If Danny doesn’t do the job, then his best friend, Hunter (Robert de Niro) will be executed.

Yvonne Strahovski does what she can with her role, which I’d originally thought might be that of an assassin, but alas, she appears as Anne, Danny’s Australian girlfriend, who sits at home and worries.  Her involvement increases when she is targeted by one of Danny’s greedy contacts, known as the Agent (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), but this section of the story still only involves her being moved from place to place and worrying more.  She gets one very good scene with Robert de Niro, however, and I think we should acknowledge how significant this is.

Danny’s team, Davies (Dominic Purcell) and Meier (Aden Young) work as a dysfunctional machine, and the assassination scenes become much more interesting when we’re introduced to the rule that the killings must look like accidents.  Eventually, Spike Logan (Clive Owen, in a role that rhymes with his name), a member of the Feather Men, becomes aware that his friends are being killed, and decides to hunt the assassins who are assassinating assassins.  I could have fit another occurrence of “assassin” in that sentence, but the plot is cluttered and disjointed enough.  Despite this, the tension never wanes, even when the filmmakers attempt to increase the suspense with cheap, horror-movie-style music catches.  We even get a new, sort-of funny acronym, which could only exist in the British lexicon.

The best part of the film’s major conflict, sausage-fest as it is, is the fact that neither side is inherently bad.  Danny and his team do the job in order to save an innocent man (the ones who are in it for the money don’t live very long), and Logan, similarly, is trying to keep his friends from being systematically murdered.  All parties receive a relatively fair, if hopelessly safe and cozy, ending.  Luckily, Statham isn’t given the lion’s share of the movie’s dialogue, and while he carries the most responsibility, de Niro is given plenty to say, and Strahovski’s importance is stressed by the narrative, though her scenes can’t help but seem thrown in.

Also of interest is a cameo appearance by an actor playing Fiennes himself after the book is published in the film’s fiction.  As the film’s story is inspired by the book, the scene in which the book is revealed is a very good “gotcha” moment which simultaneously gives off the tang of anachronism, and while I couldn’t help feeling like I was in a time loop, it was better than being beaten over the head with absurd stunts, relentless Bull-shitsu, and fake-looking CG.  If you have to choose an action movie this month, choose Killer Elite over anything that takes place on an animated planet.  Your brain will thank you.

Killer Elite (2011); written by Matt Sherring (based upon Ranulph Fiennes’ novel, The Feather Men); directed by Gary McKendry; starring Jason Statham, Clive Owen, Robert de Niro and Yvonne Strahovski. 

The Expendables

The manliest movie ever made

After Sly’s alarmingly violent Rambo reboot, I forced myself (despite my excitement) to reserve expectations for The Expendables, thinking it might end up another gorefest involving Stallone “playing in the jungle,” as Mr. Schwarzenegger puts it.  I had some confidence going in, however, because the formula for a classic actioner was always there.  Present in the film’s initial trailer and the opening credits sequence: Stallone’s banter-laden tough-guy dialogue, bullets, clouds of flame, projectile body parts/human bodies inexplicably shooting through the air, and the main cast members’ surnames splayed over the action in metallic silver text (although how Randy Couture’s name ended up on the screen will forever be a sad mystery to me).

Stallone’s newest effort is not so much a “who’s who” of action films as it is a “who’s been there.”  An early sequence features Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Stallone himself talking in a church.  If this hadn’t been shot with a digital HD camera and presented to me as part of a film, I might have thought it was just the three of them reminiscing about the glory days.  It’s a scene with some true magic, and it is refreshingly obvious that these roles were written specifically for these actors.  “What the fuck is his problem?” Willis asks as Schwarzenegger leaves.  “He wants to be President,” Stallone replies snidely as Arnold gives him a look you could shoot out of a cannon.

As relatively straightforward as the movie is, you’ll likely forget the story once you get caught up in the fun.  I’ll give it a shot: Evil dictator teams up with rogue CIA agent and Stone Cold Steve Austin; mercenaries needed because CIA killing their own guy looks bad; wizened old-timer (Mickey Rourke, despite being younger than Stallone) tells touching story about old days; Stallone and his buddies take the job; mission is not what it seems.  It’s the type of story meant for Stallone’s writing style: simple, plenty of room for one-liners, and littered with dead people.

This film is such an action-star cast party that you’ll also probably forget the characters’ names, and if you remember them, you’ll feel a bit silly using them.  But the names are worth remembering if only for their novelty.  The cast includes Hale Caesar (Terry Crews), a heavy weapons expert whose only monologue is about explosives; Lee Christmas (Jason Statham), the only one in the group who actually has a girlfriend, though he has somehow kept from her the fact that he’s a ruthless murder-machine.  Statham gets a role that is a bit deeper and infinitely more fun than the expressionless, American-accented statues that pass for characters in such popcorn action fare as the Transporter and Death Race films.  The role of Lee is no Turkish or Bacon, to be sure, but at this point in his career (unless he makes it into Guy Ritchie’s proposed remake of RocknRolla), Statham is unlikely to be doing anything but this kind of film for a long time.  In addition, we get Yin Yang (Jet Li), who has more speaking scenes in this film than American directors usually allow him, and they’re magical to witness, particularly a driving scene with Stallone in which he discusses the positives and negatives of his stature, and his fighting scenes are, as usual, dazzling (though it’s clear that a fight team is helping him out with the tougher material these days).  Dolph Lundgren also appears as Gunner Jensen, a Swedish sniper and apparent junkie.  How long do you think Rocky and Drago can last on the same team?  Just watch the first scene and you’ll know.  The last member of the team is Toll Road (Randy Couture), a demolitions expert and…y’know, he does that MMA schlock.  He’s one team member too many, and I know this isn’t dramatic, Oscar-race cinema, but every time he was alone on screen, I was embarrassed for him.  Rounding out the cast are a decent group of one-note bad guys, including an extremely hammy Eric Roberts as “James Munroe,” a corrupt CIA agent with a suspiciously allegorical name; General Garza (David Zayas), the apparently-evil dictator, though we’re expected to simply take the narrative’s word on that; The Brit (Gary Daniels), a stereotypical European enforcer who we just know will end up fighting Jet Li later; and Dan Paine (Stone Cold Steve Austin), Munroe’s bodyguard.  This is the type of role Austin should have been playing at the very beginning of his acting career (note: this is still the beginning, but he’s been in a few films now, and the henchman role suits his abilities).  Charisma Carpenter and Gisele Itie’ appear as the film’s women, but you may not remember them either.

The Expendables manages to be manly without being misogynistic, overly gory, racist, or a sweat-inducing sausage-fest (i.e. 300) .  Not a single breast or naked rear end is shown, and the two females with speaking parts are treated with respect.  The most violent scene occurs within the first ten minutes, and the gore slows down in favor of telling a story.  The cinematography is nicely crafted – care is put into every corner, not just the mindless stuff.

This film is classic action fare with witty references, a writer/director/star who knows the genre, and a cast of familiar (and likable) faces.  Perhaps the body count in this film will clear up some room for Kurt Russell to appear in a sequel?

The Expendables (2010); written and directed by Sylvester Stallone; starring Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Jet Li and Mickey Rourke.

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