Jason Statham, Clive Owen, Robert De Niro, Dominic Purcell, Aden Young, Yvonne Strahovski, Ben Mendelsohn, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje
(Open Road Films)
US theatrical: 23 Sep 2011 (General release)
UK theatrical: 23 Sep 2011 (General release)
Now, if there was a war, you’d lose. Look around.
—Simon Adebisi (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje)
Will you ever see Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje without thinking of Adebisi? Yes, he’s done other work, including a memorable arc as Mr. Echo on Lost, and a vivid turn as a victim in The Bourne Identity. But really, how can you forget the wool hat always precariously cocked on his head? When he shows up in Killer Elite, playing the Agent, Akinnuoye-Agbaje is again scary and intimidating, and again looming over his interlocutor. He’s not wearing a hat. But he might as well be.
The Agent doesn’t have a lot of screen time here. As his name implies, he’s a middleman, pretending to be a travel agent while setting up deals between clients and assassins. The primary assassin here is a guy named Danny (Jason Statham, no slouch when it comes to looking scary and intimidating). He and the Agent don’t exactly trust each other but they understand the terms of their relationship, namely, money. And so they expect to be betrayed and tricked, even as they nod and agree to meet or snarl, as if they’ll never quite agree on anything.
The basic deal that drives this film has to do with Danny’s mentor, Hunter (Robert De Niro). Though Danny has determined to leave the business following a job gone bad (a little girl in the car where her dad was the target), he’s pulled back in—aren’t they all?—when Hunter finds himself kidnapped… or at least in the wrong cell at the wrong time, held by Sheik Amr (Rodney Afif). The sheik is not actually interested in Hunter, who’s past his prime and not quite quick enough to outthink his younger and younger opponents. He is interested in vengeance against three embers of the British Secret Air Service forces who killed his sons during the Dhofar Rebellion. He wants Danny to kill the killers.
This even though the retired Danny has an Australian girlfriend, Anne (Yvonne Strabovski), who knows nothing about his past, and even though he has doubts about the Agent’s part in the deal (when Danny asserts that he’s done with killing, the Agent notes, ‘‘But maybe killing ain’t done with you”). Not to mention Danny’s misgivings about the aging sheik’s irrationality and his youngest son’s utter lack of interest in the whole shebang. For while his dad believes wholly in righteous payback and family honor and traditional ties to land, Bakhait (Firass Dirani) is a rich kid who’d rather not get dirty. His bodyguards carry his weapons. He doesn’t want to return to he homeland or live in the desert. He wants his dad to hurry up and die so he can spend his money the way he wants, not on killers, but on shiny cars and designer suits and girls in bikinis.
Danny notes this shift in generational interest even if Amr doesn’t, but he’s in a tight spot, given Hunter’s tight spot, and so he sets to tracking down the killers, who are, it turns out, supervised and protected by a group of British mucky-mucks called the Feather Men. One member helpfully explains the moniker to another, having to do with their super-secrecy and light touch, neither evident in these increasingly hysterical proceedings, based on a novel by former SAS adventurer Sir Ranulph Fiennes. The Feather Men sic their own boy, Spike (Clive Owen), on Danny, and so the movie—for all the bloodshed by secondary killers—finds something like a focus in the cat-and-mousing of these two extra-special killers.
Though it’s set against the vaguely historical intrigues of the British government’s part in putting down the rebels in Dhofar (1962-1975), this relationship raises the sorts of questions raised by the Bourne stories. These elite killers don’t so much believe in their missions as they do in their own skills (imbued in them by years of expensive and hard-ass training, but now understood to be somehow innate) and, to an extent, in their intense relationships with one another. Spike’s few scenes with the old SAS men illustrate that he’s impatient with their inability to contain their own problems and unimpressed by their reputations. He’s especially put off by how anxious they become under risk of exposure.
Even as Danny comes to recognize the essential futility of all the killing, he can’t help but take a certain pride in how well he does it. He’s only sucked back into the business, the film insists, because of the threats against Hunter and then, inevitably, to Anne. This tedious turn goes so far as to bring Anne out of the outback into Paris, where she’s blissfully ignorant of details while Danny goes about his business. The shots of the beautiful country girl, leaving behind her jeans shorts and working boots and now wide-eyed at the awesome sights of the city, only underline her frankly offensive function as plot device, that is, incarnation of the innocence Danny longs to possess.
Better to pit Danny against people his own size—metaphorically, at least. And so his final confrontation with the Agent, pathological and practical, unrepentantly lying and conniving, is a fitting non-conclusion for the film. If all these elite and very white killers think they have moral, political, or even financial reasons for what they do, the Agent knows they don’t.