Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Killer Elite (Gary McKendry, 2011)

Deadly bore

Jason Statham doesn't do much acting; in every one of his pictures you see a sullen mouth under a pair of seriously peeved eyes, well-hidden by an imposing crag of a brow. Hero or villain, there's something pure about Statham; you can always rely on him to move into action with all the agility (and lack of humor) of a menopausal Jackie Chan. And you can count on him to do it with the graceless lack of enthusiasm of a bored anthropoid--that's Statham in a nutshell.

That view of Statham was seriously challenged in The Bank Job (2008), an ostensibly routine crime thriller-slash-true-story that under the hands of veteran director Roger Donaldson turned out better than anyone expected--Donaldson captured the gritty reality of '70s London, and in Statham captures the chip-on-the-shoulder class resentment felt by many blue-collar workers at the time (still do, I suspect). Statham's acting here was a startling bonus; who knew he could play low-key smolder well, without once resorting to his larger-than-life action-movie persona? He's so good one actually worries for him when he's being threatened--unlike in his other pictures where a threat is usually prelude to broken wrists, shattered kneecaps, cracked skulls.

Come the rest of his career (Death Race (2008) and all the Crank and Transporter sequels) and no, apparently this breakthrough role didn't signal a significant change in the actor's career--he's still out there breaking wrists and cracking skulls. He did deliver a touch of irony while starring in The Expendables--compared to actors like Sylvester Stallone and Dolph Lundgren he's still relatively young and flexible, and his usual sullen expression suggested he didn't deserve to dawdle with such over-the-hill company.

Otherwise--nada; nothing. By the time of The Killer Elite (2011), that intense burst of lower-class realism has pretty much vanished into memory, and there is little apparent hope watching him enter this picture that any of it will be recovered here--he's still Statham, he's still fast and flexible, but there's precious little going on beneath those brows save the trademark annoyed glare, the implied threat that he's going to screw you up seriously if you keep staring at him.

The only ghost of an interesting drama or romance or anything occurs when Statham fetches up against Clive Owen who, unlike Statham, can actually act. Owen's glare suggests genuine danger, complicated by intelligence and a sense of humor; once in a while you catch his mouth edging towards a grin, but it doesn't soften his glare--if anything, it makes him look a tad psycho, as if he'd not just break your wrist but laugh long and loud in the process. Owen--who can upstage Statham with the bat of an eyelash, is apparently too threatening; the producers must have decided to dampen his charisma by gluing a dead caterpillar to his upper lip (you don't for a moment feel like wondering why he looks so glum). Said offending facial hair almost does in Owen's performance--almost. All he has to do is glare a little wider and twist that grin a few millimeters higher, and he's as intimidating as ever.

It's not a bad film, per se; Gary McKendry, an Aussie director making his feature debut, does not strictly adhere to the Paul Greengrass-style of handheld footage cut chop-suey style (case in point: the Jason Bourne movies); he is especially adept at chase sequences and the one major car chase he stages late in the picture ends with a startlingly crunchy surprise. The endless first encounter between Owen and Statham, however, is too closely shot to be coherent; it starts feeling seriously dull when you don't know what's going on--haven't for some time. McKendry does seem to have a feel for the kind of British military machismo (well, Aussie--the picture was shot Down Under) you find hanging out in expatriate bars, and the like. You can imagine the crowd consisting of old friends who have worked together as a team for years, in far less friendly locales...

The veracity question I can't care less about. The movie is based on all-around adventurer and novelist Ranulph Fiennes' The Feather Men,” which he describes as a “factional” work where it's left to the reader to decide what is fact and what not. Frankly, I find the coyness annoying.

Overall it should have been a terrific thriller; if I'm less than enthusiastic that may be because the whole enterprise has the aura--or stink, rather--of a by-the-numbers effort. Even Sam Peckinpah's less stellar films brim over with personality, case in point being his late picture of the same title (borrowed, apparently, without proper attribution).

Peckinpah's The Killer Elite (1975) if anything makes even less sense, a wildly unlikely mix of rival CIA factions and gratuitous martial arts--if I prefer Peckinpah's over this picture that's because Peckinpah's for all its flaws (it's an ugly-spirited late work) seethes with hate and fury (at what you're not quite sure: corrupt government factions? Equally corrupt film studio bosses?), and that hate is reflected in the martial arts fight sequences, the blows lovingly extended to savor their impact on human flesh. Statham's movie doesn't have that kind of emotion; when I try remember any part of it I come up with a long, undistinguishable blur.

First published at Businessworld, 10.20.11

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