There is a certain type of espionage picture that you just don’t see anymore. Some of us grew up watching these also-ran, long-forgotten relics during lazy Saturday afternoons. It was all a panoply of tinted sunglasses, bad sideburns and laborious exposition. Every once in awhile, one of the mutton-chopped (always British) mulleted bastards would kill somebody, but mostly you just sat around waiting to see a flash of boob. These were the kind of low-rent pictures that couldn’t even afford Michael Caine.
Gary McKendry’s Killer Elite is not a decent film by any stretch of the imagination, but it reminded me enough of crappy movies from my youth that nostalgia inclines me to give it far more credit than it actually deserves. Set in 1980—and for all intents and purposes feeling like it was written back then—the movie stars Jason Statham as a growling mad assassin suckered back into an impossible mission when his mentor (Robert De Niro, where does the time go?) is kidnapped by a vendetta-crazed, terminally ill Arabian sheik.
The short version is that Statham is ordered to assassinate a bad batch of former SAS agents, but not before coaxing confessions out of them onto low-rent, period-specific audio-visual equipment. Purporting to be “based on a true story,” the picture comes from “a novel” by a notorious bad actor from Her Majesty’s spy community who was allegedly drummed out of the SAS after attempting to murder Rex Harrison on the set of Doctor Doolittle.
Killer Elite is awfully silly, but it does provide the red-meat goodies of reliable badass Statham attempting to out-glower Clive Owen, here wearing a porn-star moustache and Superfly jacket, perhaps wondering where his career went so wrong, but being swarthy all the same. There are a lot of unlucky hookers and bad facial hair, and the more everybody tries to explain the plot the more impossible it becomes to parse.
Meanwhile, we’ve got De Niro, who in the year when this movie was set gave a life-changing performance as Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull . Now he’s half-assedly muttering one-liners and, in the movie’s most emotionally honest moment—helping himself to a giant bag of money.