One really should add Jason Statham’s absurdly amusing, chair-tied, backflip-splash smackdown of a mustachioed Clive Owen in Killer Elite to his burgeoning oeuvre of impressive, thoroughly impossible and thereby enjoyable, stunt work. Though it nearly saved the film by its sheer childlike impetuosity, one cannot forgive the hour or so that preceded this climatic chair-combat, no matter how keen and convivial a sense of humor is possessed by the spectators. This is an hour so helplessly unaware of the action-assassin movie clichés it spews forth that any notions of guilty pleasure promptly dissipate into disappointment for those of us who went simply to see some furniture acrobatics and a few of those trademark cold stares from Statham, the best stoic five o’clock shadow in the business. No one can wear dark sunglasses and wield a pistol quite like him.
The main event of the evening, Statham versus Owen, is set up in the following manner: Statham plays Danny, your typical killer-for-hire-with-a-conscious, who suddenly becomes aware of the evils of his profession when he kills a man in front of a wee innocent girl, her spoiled innocence signified by the splattering of claret on her face. Evidently this brings him around, and before he can quit the biz and spend some quality time with his damsel (not yet in distress, though, because this one bails hay and can fire a shotgun, all by herself!) he is pulled back in for one last job. His motivation? Rescue the kind-hearted, lovable man who taught him how to kill people for money, Hunter, played by a bored-looking Robert De Niro. In order to do so he must assassinate three ex-British SAS agents responsible for the murder of an Iranian sheik’s son. Of course, he’s all like doubting the morality of his line of work, but he forges ahead with this final mission, undaunted and unshaven still. He puts his generically appropriate ragtag team of malcontents and ne’er-do-wells together and the game is on, so to speak.
And what a letdown this game turns out be. Suffice it to say, many people are kicked (usually below the belt in the usual puerile gag), choked, thrown, shot, stabbed, hit by oncoming traffic, and emphatically exploded, and with an unselfconscious and totally uncreative abandon. The lone car chase, one of the generic musts expected of this kind of film, is rendered practically incomprehensible by the cinematography, which seemingly, impatiently and incessantly, refuses to play along with the mise-en-scène to render the scene at all comprehensible beyond the purely visceral editing. Matter of fact, significant spatial concerns remain unreadable throughout the entire film, except, strangely enough, for another chase scene, this time on foot, immediately prior to the aforementioned Statham/Owen throwdown. That one, involving a rooftop getaway, is atypically well-organized in terms of shot relations and spatial configurations. For the most part, however, most scenes are filmed in that burlesqued mobile style so much the rage in mainstream filmmaking, and as it has become increasingly common it has also become increasingly irritating to witness. This kind of kinetic continuity is tedious in the extreme and ultimately detracts from understanding, and potentially enjoying, such lovely spectacle as offered by the trashy action cinema.
Sound, if you simply must know, functions in Killer Elite the way you expect it would function. Fast songs play when people shoot or grapple with each other, and the slower stuff scores the romantic moments, like when Statham smiles sarcastically at his dotting damsel, as he often does, she being real cute, docile and deferring and all. Speaking of her (she has a name, IMDB says, and I would be hard-pressed to refute her being called Anne at any point in the film, so I take the information on faith), why do so many action movies about assassins thematically tag girls and women as symbols of the brightest white innocence? Sure, Anne does farm work all by her lonesome, like bailing hay (in short-shorts) and firing a gun, but she also needs to be babysat by De Niro while Daddy Statham finishes the job in Paris. Why does she even like him? He leaves her somewhere in the English countryside so he can kill people. What a swell guy, he must be so handsome and virile and tough that she must nevertheless welcome him into her bosom of straight-salvation.
Her character, and the others, are little more than manikins, which, not coincidentally, brings me back around to this Statham/Owen broken chair brawl. Look at how the room is staged; Statham, bound to the chair, is held at gunpoint by Owen. Behind and all around them are undressed manikins, piled high in untidy stacks, their limbs akimbo. What does this mise-en-scène say? Anything brainy? Perhaps not, but one does get the sensation of looking in on a toy collection, complete with lifelike Statham and Owen figurines to toss about. Maybe Killer Elite should’ve been their sandbox.