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Movie Review

Killer Elite

Statham is driving force of ‘Killer Elite’

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By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / September 23, 2011

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"Killer Elite’’ is based on a true story and about a half-dozen Jason Statham movies. Conveniently, it stars Statham as a man-for-hire who drives mysterious cargo across Europe in the trunk of a sedan.

Wait, that’s him in “The Transporter.’’ Let me see. Oh. Yes. Here he’s Danny Bryce, an assassin-for-hire who wants out of the assassin-for-hire business but is dragged back in for One More Job after an Omani sheik kidnaps his old buddy and partner in vigilantism (Robert De Niro). The ailing sheik (Rodney Afif, badly made up) bears a passing resemblance to Osama bin Laden and insists that Statham hunt down the agents in the clandestine British Special Forces that killed his sons.

Honestly, from here it’s all a blur, and not one to be entirely confused with Sam Peckinpah’s “The Killer Elite,’’ another tale of agents and death. The “true story’’ of the new film remains in dispute. The source material is “The Feather Men’’ by the British soldier and explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes. Fiennes has described his literary mode as “factional.’’ The movie, written by Matt Sherring, goes out of its way to insist on the truth while conjuring an element of government-agent intrigue. In doing so, Sherring closes the gap between reality and such Statham adventures as “Death Race’’ and “Crank: High Voltage.’’

As a Statham character is wont to do, Danny daydreams about the woman he left behind and rejoins some former teammates - Aden Young and an enjoyably greasy Dominic Purcell, who’s better here than he is as the town dimwit in the current “Straw Dogs’’ remake. Statham does some driving and has a couple of decently choreographed fights with Clive Owen, whose comrades Danny’s been picking off. But he often looks bored or baffled. Both are understandable. It’s impossible to keep track of who’s who and why what’s happening is happening. With some assassin exercises that’s to be expected. Then, however, the film has to give you something in exchange for your confusion. Bravura, lunacy, the sense that someone in front of the camera or somewhere behind it is having a good time.

Gary McKendry hadn’t directed a feature before this one, and you feel it. Any scene that fails to involve the revving of motors or the breaking of bones is dead.

The advertising for “Killer Elite’’ might lead you to believe that De Niro and Owen have more of a stake in the proceedings than they do. McKendry has simply made a Statham movie with De Niro and Owen flavoring. The fights between Statham and Owen are competent but dull. They’ve been lighted and edited to make it hard to tell when the stuntmen have taken over, and choreographed so that Owen looks like he really could have the upper hand on Statham. That’s persuasive only if the fighting is at the end of “Hamlet.’’

“Killer Elite’’ spends much too much time with its star in a stationary position. No one pays to watch Statham wait in a car. So it’s something of a relief to see him spin and flip while tied to a chair. The sight of him speeding along rooftops and through parking lots, abandoned warehouses, and shipyards is like watching a nature organization release an animal back into the wild.

The movie doesn’t give him enough do with Owen and De Niro, who, toward the end of the film, is looking hale and happy to be here. They do share a desert encounter that seems digitally altered to bring them together. What you notice there is that their sunglasses are working a lot harder than the men behind them.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @wesley_morris.

KILLER ELITE

Directed by: Gary McKendry

Written by: Matt Sherring, adapted from the book by Ranulph Fiennes

Starring: Jason Statham, Clive Owen, Dominic Purcell, and Robert De Niro

At: Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs

Running time: 100 minutes

Rated: R (some nudity and sexuality, language, and assassin-related violence)

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