K is for… Killer Elite
Killer Elite, directed by Gary McKendry, is different from the other files I’ve reviewed in that it is based on a true story, specifically the book The Feather Men by Sir Ranulph Fiennes. Surely the other films I’ve looked at—minus G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra and Face/Off—have factual elements or could conceivably occur in the real world, but Killer Elite is based on true events. Well, “true events” that the parties in question deny and no one knows what actually happened, so the story is basically fiction, anyway.
That’s fine with me, because action films based solely on true events might not be as entertaining as ones where Castor Troy and John Matrix exist.
Anyway, Killer Elite stars Jason Statham as Danny, an ex-British special ops guy, who spends the movie doing a mercenary job to free his long time mentor Hunter, played by Robert De Niro. The film opens in 1980 with the two of them on an op, killing their target with the help of a couple other members of their crew, Meier (Aden Young) and Davies (Dominic Purcell). Danny killed the target in front of his son, and got badly wounded himself, and immediately says he’s done with that line of work. Cut to a year or so later, and Danny receives in the mail a picture of Hunter being held hostage. He treks from Australia to Oman, and learns that Hunter is being held captive by Sheik Amr (Rodney Afif). Amr’s sons, minus Bakhait (Firass Dirani), were all killed by British special forces—SAS—soldiers. Hunter had agreed to take on the job of killing the soldiers in retaliation but later refused, and Danny has to complete the job in order to free Hunter. He’d still get the six million dollars initially offered to Hunter.
Danny rounds up Meier and Davies again, and they help him narrow down targets with the help of Agent (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), the one who assigned them jobs in the first place. Experts that they are, the job should be a fairly easy one once the targets are identified, but on their tail is former SAS agent Spike (Clive Owen). The Feathermen, an ex-SAS member secret society, has him tracking Danny’s group after Davies is recognized as asking too many questions about the battle where Amr’s sons were killed. Also making the job difficult is that Danny must get the men to confess on tape to killing the sons, and also the deaths must look like accidents.
The first target, Harris (Lachy Hulme), is killed easily enough by making it look like he fell in the shower, though Danny’s group is spied on and thus Spike knows what they all look like. The second target, Cregg (Grant Bowler), is killed on an SAS training march, and his death is made to look like hypothermia. The final target, McCann (Daniel Roberts), is killed in what appears to be a vehicle accident but is actually Meier controlling a truck that forces McCann to crash into it. Meier also dies tragically on this final leg of the mission due to friendly (inexperienced) fire of his new protégé Jake (Michael Dorman). Davies also soon dies as he’s chased by Spike’s men into traffic and is hit by a truck.
Seemingly the job is done, but it turns out Harris wasn’t actually guilty of killing the sheik’s son. Ranulph Fiennes (Dion Mills) was another soldier in the battle, and he has written a book about his experiences, including killing Amr’s son. Danny is forced into action again when his girlfriend Anne (Yvonne Strahovski) is threatened. He works with Jake to fake an assault on Spike and other agents, and pretends to kill Fiennes in order to save Anne’s life. Anne, meanwhile, is in Paris being watched over by Hunter, after giving Danny grief over not knowing anything about him and his past.
Spike takes Danny hostage but is in turn assaulted by a British government agent who explains the events of the sheik’s son’s deaths were all a play to control the sheik’s oil reserves. Spike winds up killing the agent and Danny escapes. He and Hunter return to Oman to show Amr their photos and get their money, but Spike gets there first. He explains the pictures of Fiennes are fake and kills the sheik, though since he’s obviously on his deathbed it’s a token act. Bakhait doesn’t care at all and gives Spike the money put aside for Danny.
After a chase through the streets, with Danny and Hunter chasing the sheik’s men that are chasing Spike, Spike, Danny, and Hunter wind up in the desert. Hunter takes some of the money and he and Danny leave Spike.
Cue the last scene being Danny meeting up with Anne so they can start their life together.
The film is entertaining and doesn’t spin into strangeness the way it might if it weren’t based on a true story. It seemed a little long but I seem to say that about every film I’ve reviewed save Commando, which I think everyone can agree can be another fifteen or twenty minutes longer to give Arnold more time to blow up more stuff.
There are a number of interesting things about the movie, so let’s get into the criteria.
A is for… Accents
I started to keep track of accents before I realized every single person in the movie has a non-American accent except for Robert De Niro, but considering his New York accent he can be described as having an accent as well.
Everyone has an accent because the movie takes place in a slew of foreign countries: Mexico, Australia, Oman, England, and France.
B is for… Bad Guys
Killer Elite is one of those films where either everyone is the bad guy, or no one is. Danny and Hunter are the protagonists and the audience roots for them, but they are assassins who by definition kill people. Amr is a villain for making Danny kill people, but he’s only avenging the deaths of his sons. Spike is the antagonist getting in Danny’s way, but he’s only operating for the Feathermen, who are only trying to keep their SAS members alive. By the very nature of them being a secret society they seem to be morally ambiguous and are prepared to make Spike take the fall should anything go awry, and describe themselves as businessmen and bankers, and get other people to do their dirty work. Spike is described as having no job and keeping odd hours, which makes him suspicious but not necessarily a bad guy. But then throw in Agent and the British government, who orchestrate the whole thing from the beginning regarding Amr’s sons, so “government” is the evil force even though outside of one agent and the slates at the beginning of the film, it’s not mentioned.
C is for… Chases
Danny’s group spots the photographer taking pictures of them in the desert and chase him into and then through a series of underground tunnels. He’s able to get away by unleashing a swarm of some kind of large insect, which distracts Danny’s men.
Spike recognizes Danny from the photographer’s pictures of Davies and chases him as Danny leaves the hospital. The chase looks almost slow motion in cars from the ‘70s on narrow streets. Danny guides Spike back to the hospital and slips inside to hide. Spike sees his footprint in a recently washed floor and is able to follow him. They wind up fighting in what looks like an operating room, and Danny ends the fight by catching the leg Spike tries to kick him with, and punching him in the groin.
After McCann’s death, Meier and Jake are chased by McCann’s minder. They wind up at a storage yard of some sort and before Davies can get there Jake shoots the minder in the back of the head, somehow not realizing the bullet would travel through him and into Meier, who was standing right in front of him.
Some of the Feathermen find Davies in a motel room with a prostitute and he runs away. Unfortunately he runs into the middle of the road and his hit by a truck. Spike is mad about that because now he can’t get information from him.
After Danny pretends to kill Fiennes, he runs and Spike chases him through the building, across the roof, back down again, and it’s a really entertaining suspenseful chase.
The second to last sequence in the film is Amr’s men chasing Spike and Hunter and Danny chasing them. Hunter is able to break it up by slamming his car into theirs, and then he and Danny go after Spike.
D is for… Damsels
Anne Frazer is the least engaging type of action film damsels by being not only a target for the bad guys, and harping on the hero for his sketchy past and lack of proper attention to her, but also serving no useful purpose at all aside from those two things. She could be sliced out the film entirely and it would make no difference. Which is sad considering how much I adored the actress on Chuck, and know she’s much better than her role in Killer Elite. Yes, she’s beautiful, but she can also be so much more. Ironically her accent sounds fake, but the actress is actually from Australia.
The backstory between them is that they knew each other as children, and she lives nearby where Danny is fixing up a house, so he must have returned to his home or somewhere he knew very well. She’s another incentive for Danny to quit being an assassin, as if killing people and getting shot weren’t enough. The more she knows about him the more she realizes she doesn’t know, and she even drops on him, “You go away and I realize I know nothing about you.” He’s trying to do one last job to save his friend and later her, and she gives him nothing but grief. Understandably, what with her becoming a target and all, but still.
The only other woman in the film with memorable screen time (aside from the prostitute and Harris’s girlfriend) is a woman who sees Danny fall through scaffolding and catch himself right outside her window. He has his gun, and she looks at it and him and he tells her not to “do it.” The film cuts back and forth between them and Spike, and when Danny turns his head away from her is when she chokes out an awful scream that alerts Spike to Danny’s presence.
E is for… Explosions
The film is more thinky than explodey, so there aren’t many explosions.
Meier explodes the sedan in the opening scene so Danny can go in and make his kill.
A trap is set for Danny where Fiennes is being kept, and the door explodes. However it’s Jake that takes the brunt of it.
Lastly a pipe of some sort on the roof of the building explodes when Spike shoots it while aiming for Danny.
F is for… Flashbacks
A lot of Danny and Anne’s relationship is explained through the use of flashbacks, including when they met as adults and him slowly building his house. There’s a flashback of them at New Year’s where she fires a rifle into the air, so maybe she has potential to be part of the action plot, but nothing ever comes out of it.
While readying to shoot Fiennes, Danny flashes back on the kid of the man he killed in Mexico. It may be what stops him from killing Fiennes, but maybe not as Danny didn’t want to return to the op anyway.
G is for… Guns
Details at the IMFDB.
The film is about assassins and ex-soldiers, so everyone has a gun.
In Mexico Hunter uses an assault rifle.
Amr’s palace guards have handguns that prove useless because they never get the chance to fire them when Hunter and Danny try to escape. Some even have machine guns.
Agent of course has his own handgun.
Harris has his own handgun that he and his girlfriend use to shoot bottles.
The photographer in the desert has a rifle.
Anne has her New Year’s celebratin’ rifle.
Jake shoots the minder and Meier with a revolver.
Hilariously Danny pitches a handgun at a guard and it smacks him in the face, knocking him down.
There are various shootouts as well:
During the Mexico scene Hunter and Danny get into one with a cop.
Hunter and Danny storm through Amr’s palace.
The photographer and Danny’s team in the desert.
Hunter and Amr’s men.
Let’s also not forget Hunter’s shot through the subway that gets Agent right in the leg.
H is for… Helicopters
During C Company’s rest day Harris buzzes the troops on the beach in a military helicopter.
The “Motherfucker What’s In Charge” has a chopper.
I is for… Improvisation
Danny and his crew mostly just use their guns, though they did have to get creative with the killings, like making a club using bathroom tile, faking hypothermia, and using a remote controlled truck. Danny does have to get a little creative while fighting hand-to-hand with Spike, including using a tray as a blunt instrument. He’s also able to use the chair strapped to his back later in the movie to his advantage in a fist fight.
J is for… Jumping Through Solid Objects
Danny smashes Spike into numerous glass cabinets in the operating room.
During the chase scene through the buildings, Danny leaps onto scaffolding and proceeds to fall through several levels of it.
Danny throws himself through a window, using the chair strapped to his back to break the glass.
K is for… Kill Count
Danny of course kills the man in the sedan in Mexico, but that’s before the story even really starts.
Meier kills Harris with the bathroom tile club, though it looks like there was more of a struggle than anticipated. Of course, Harris wasn’t actually guilty.
Davies kills the battle photographer/painter in order to get an address.
Danny kills Cregg by drugging him then injecting him to make him go into shock, then watches him die of hypothermia on the march.
Meier kills McCann by forcing him to crash his car.
Danny doesn’t actually like killing, especially people not on the list to kill. He’s angry Davies kills the painter, and doesn’t kill Fiennes himself.
L is for… Limitations
Davies actually outlines the group’s limitations on the operation quite nicely:
The SAS is “a paranoid bunch. Always got their back up.”
Oman is a black hole: “You need info on Oman. No one talks about Oman.”
They have to get the soldiers to confess, but they’ll be trying to resist torture, so they’ll say nothing.
The SAS is the “best special forces regime in the world. They make the Navy SEALs look like cupcakes.”
They also have to make the murders look like accidents, and even Amr doesn’t know who actually killed his sons. So, there’s a lot of recon and planning that has to be done. By the end Danny doesn’t have his team, is worried about Anne and Hunter, and really doesn’t even want to be doing the job at all.
M is for… Motivation
Amr wants revenge for the SAS killing his sons, Hussain, Salim, and Ali. Bakhait wasn’t in the war and is exiled. Amr wants Bakhait to go home to the desert after his death. Amr needs the SAS killers dead so Bakhait can return to his tribe.
Danny obviously only wants to save Hunter, and later Anne. He doesn’t even have any interest in taking the money, though six million went a long way in 1980.
N is for… Negotiation
Danny has to get Meier and Davies on board, though it doesn’t take much negotiation especially once he says he doesn’t want the six million and they can split it between them.
Danny makes Hunter agree to get out of the business if he gets him out of there.
Hunter tells Agent, “You go after them, I’ll find you. Everybody gets found. Even you.”
I suppose there’s not so much negotiating as there are ultimatums and statements about the future.
O is for… One Liners
Danny: I’m done with killing.
Agent: Maybe killing’s not done with you.
Meier: Would you like a lolly?
Davies: I’d love a lolly.
Meier: Strawberry or fuck you?
Featherman: I’ve got no problem with blood. What worries me is ink.
Guard: You can’t stop here, mate.
Davies: I didn’t stop, the truck did.
Danny: The first think you should buy is a pair of balls.
Davies: I’ll have a hooker for him. He’d like that.
Featherman: He had this on him.
Spike, sarcastic: Oh a phone number. Great work.
Hunter: What’s the plan?
Danny: Get out of here.
Hunter: Sounds good.
Hunter: So how are the Yankees doing?
Hunter: Life is like licking honey from a thorn.
Hunter: Relax, I only killed the car.
Hunter, taking the sheik’s money from Spike: I got to cover my expenses.
Spike: So where are you going?
Danny: What, you planning a visit?
P is for… Profession
Danny and Hunter kill “assholes.” It’s clear they’re assassins but it’s not initially evident if they are “good” guys or “bad” guys, with only knowing Jason Statham is the lead letting the audience know he’s the hero to root for. After the mission in Mexico, Danny retires to Australia, but gets pulled back in to rescue Hunter. Clearly he’s a highly trained killer if Hunter is hired for a job and he’s hired to get it done once Hunter refuses.
Hunter ran from the job of killing the sheik’s son’s killers and was taken hostage to get Danny to finish the job.
Danny is depicted as being good at his job as an assassin, mercenary, whatever, such as when he steals the bathroom tile to make the club for Harris’s death. He doesn’t actually like his job, and doesn’t like when his team members kill people without needing to or don’t stick to the plan they agreed to. All three assassinations go off pretty smoothly, and if Davies were a better actor the Feathermen might not have realized what was going on at all.
The SAS is described as “top class professional assassins.”
Q is for… Quagmire
By the end of the film, Danny is alone except for Jake the new kid, fighting someone else’s fight for a cause he doesn’t believe in for people he doesn’t trust, while his girlfriend is a target. He and Spike get tied to chairs with seemingly no way out.
R is for… Reality/Suspension of Disbelief
Considering the film is based on a true story, however loosely, it better stick pretty close to reality! And it does, with notably fewer massive explosions, massive chases, ridiculous firefights, and fewer giant action sequences in general.
S is for… Sidekicks
Meier and Davies are the obvious sidekicks. They’re clearly important members of Danny and Hunter’s team. Outside of them Danny doesn’t have anyone helping him.
T is for… Technology
Because the film is set in 1980, the technology—or lack thereof—is quite noticeable.
Everyone has to dial on rotary phones, and it’s actually pretty distracting to see. Any kids watching the movie aren’t going to know what those are. 1980 was a strange middle period where it’s too far in the past to have clunky versions of modern technology, but not old enough for those crank phones in movies set in the ‘50s.
Meier uses a giant remote to control the truck; it’s roughly the size of two shoeboxes put together.
Danny has his video confessions on videotape, and no wonder he doesn’t have a problem faking McCann’s confession. Who had camcorders in 1980? It all looked amazing back then, even though the footage would most likely be considered unwatchable today.
Danny also uses what looks like a 35-milimeter camera with no fancy lenses or anything, just a point-and-click on which he’ll have to wait to get the film developed. Such a thing—not being able to see a photo right after it’s taken—is such a foreign thing even to me, and I’ve only had a digital camera for a few years.
U is for… Unexpected Romance
Because there are no women other than Danny’s girlfriend, there is no unexpected romance, just their annoying and predictable one.
V is for… Vehicles as Weapons
There’s a lot of running around in the film, and a lot of traveling, but because it’s grounded in reality there aren’t too many scenes with stand-out vehicles in them. The very final chase with Amr’s men has Hunter and Danny using their SUV to cut off/smash into Amr’s men’s car, and Hunter uses the SUV to ram into Spike’s car. I’d say run him off the road but they aren’t really on a road so much as they’re in the middle of the desert.
W is for… Winning
Once McCann is dead, Danny believes the mission is over and Hunter is released and they can both go home. But because Harris wasn’t actually guilty, Danny has to go back into the field after Fiennes. Danny is able to fake Fiennes’s death and get his pictures for Amr, though Spike is able to take the camera and give the pictures to Amr and get the money. Danny meanwhile evades Spike and meets up with Hunter.
They all go back to Oman, where Spike shows the pictures to Amr then stabs him. Bakhait could not care less about his father because he doesn’t have any interest in going back to the desert to run the oil empire. Bakhait gives Spike the money reserved for Danny and Hunter.
Spike gets chased out of the palace by Amr’s guards, who chase him by car through the streets, and Danny and Hunter chase them. Hunter knocks the guards out of the chase and follows Spike through the desert. He and Danny disable the car by crashing into it and shooting out the tires. They all kind of agree to disagree, Hunter takes some of the money, and then he and Danny leave Spike there and tell him they’ll call him a cab.
The film ends of course with Danny picking up Anne.
X is for… X-rays, or Maybe You Should See a Doctor
During the final chase/fight sequence against Spike, Danny falls through several layers of wooden scaffolding, gets beaten up, gets tied to a chair and has to fight for his freedom with said chair tied to him, and throws himself through a window and lands on a truck. The aftermath of all of this isn’t really seen, so maybe he does see a doctor, but if he’s a typical movie hero, he’s fine and just walks it off.
Y is for… Yesterday’s Problem Becomes Today’s Problem
It’s unrelated to Danny and Hunter, but the SAS killing Amr’s sons sets everything in motion and they get caught up in it. Had the SAS not killed the sons, there wouldn’t be a job. Also if Danny hadn’t tried to retire, perhaps Hunter wouldn’t have said he’d take the job he then refused to do. Also Danny might be out of shape after having retired.
Z is for… Zone, Being in the
Because so much of the job is team-oriented, no one is really in a “zone.” Especially Davies and Meiers, and Hunter is locked up through most of it. Danny is great at his job, but he has his team to help him plan and get things together.
Killer Elite has a lot of good in it, even though it’s hard to understand what’s happening because of everyone’s accents. Watching with subtitles actually really helped a lot. For a “true story” that happened in 1980, the story and action are both good. Definitely worth a re-watch.
As usual, here are a few final thoughts:
There are a couple of pat-downs done by Amr’s men on Danny that are extremely weak and ineffective. They didn’t seem to check the small of his back.
Like any good action movie, there are a lot of choreographed fist fights, with numerous headbutts.
Danny has a great fight while strapped to a chair, which isn’t something I’d ever thought about being awesome before seeing it in Marvel’s The Avengers.
Amr has a large bird of prey that wears some sort of pointed helmet, and it was awesome.
The moustaches were really distracting and it made it harder to tell the tall white men with brown hair apart.
The end credits had a really interesting and pretty light/lens flare design. Usually end credits are just black, or are stylized for only the first part, but these were really pretty the whole way through.
Killer Elite definitely has a gritty feel to it, and it works on a lot of levels by having good acting/casting, good writing, and interesting fights and plot points. Its main failing seems to be the sheer number of characters to keep track of, but obviously they can’t be cut out if they actually existed. But since the Feathermen are such a mystery, who knows what’s true and what’s not?