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How Did Killer Elite Disappoint Us? Let's Count The Ways

Like most movie critics, I've been looking forward to this fall's onslaught of prestige pictures after the summer blockbuster season. From Moneyball and The Ides of March to Melancholia and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the next three months are packed with hugely promising, very serious titles from directors, writers and actors I respect a great deal. But amidst all the high drama, there's always room for a 'splodey, ass-kicking action picture, which is why I've been anticipating Killer Elite since I first caught wind of it in late July.

Start with the cast: you've got Jason Statham (an action star I've come to really appreciate), Clive Owen (a guy I'll watch in anything), Robert De Niro (sure he sleepwalks through most of his films these days, but c'mon... he's still Robert De Niro) and Yvonne Strahovski, still one of the finest (in all senses of the word) things about NBC's spy serial Chuck. Then move on to the excellent trailer for the film, which promises a potent mixture of gritty '70s-style action sequences (no CGI robots to be found!) and a globe-trotting plot involving deadly assassins and duplicitous secret agents. All in all, it looked like a can't-miss combination of the right ensemble in the right kind of flick. I'm not ashamed to admit that on my list of most anticipated fall movies, Killer Elite ranked above tonier fare like Clint Eastwood's J. Edgar and Steven Spielberg's War Horse.

So it pains me to report that the movie I was so psyched for is a dud, misfiring on almost all the levels I had assumed it would master without breaking a sweat. It's not even that the film is an unwatchable disaster -- it's just a big disappointment, which, in a way, makes it even more of a bummer. It's one thing to endure a bad movie; it's quite another to sit there watching a film that has so much promise and yet fails to capitalize on it. In no particular order, here are the most disappointing things about Killer Elite.

1. Jason Statham is asked to do too much "acting" and not enough "action."
Unlike most of the muscle-bound heroes that dominated action cinema in the '80s, Statham has a lean, mean kineticism that's exciting to watch. That's why his best features -- the two Crank movies and the first Transporter outing -- try to keep him in constant motion. Whenever he's handed a more dramatic role that keeps him rooted him to the spot, think 2007's War with Jet Li, he loses a lot of his charisma. (The one exception to this rule is 2008's The Bank Job, a fun heist picture that's light on flying fists and roundhouse kicks, but zips along snappily enough to keep Statham on point.) In Killer Elite, Statham plays assassin-for-hire Danny, who retires from the game after almost killing a ten-year old boy. But just when he thinks he's out, he's pulled back in after his partner Hunter (De Niro) is kidnapped by a Middle Eastern sheikh and used as a bargaining chip to force Danny to carry out a mission of vengeance. Watching Statham mope his way through the early scenes is almost painfully awkward and, even once the action gets going, he seems stuck in second gear. Memo to Statham's future directors: This guy is at his best when he's being reactive, not introspective. Keep that in mind.

2. The story promises intrigue, but doesn't deliver on it.
Once Statham is dispatched on the sheikh's revenge mission, he hopscotches around the globe in order to track down the targets -- the British special ops squad that killed his employer's three sons -- he's meant to rub out. Meanwhile, a mysterious group within Britain's secret service catches wind of Danny's mission and calls up their enforcer Spike (Owen) to "take care" of the problem. What should result from these developments is a high-stakes cat-and-mouse game, but instead of ratcheting up the tension, the air just leaks out of the movie. Although they're meant to grow increasingly interconnected, Danny and Spike's storylines instead feel as though they're taking place in different movies. It doesn't help that the world Spike inhabits is so poorly defined -- it's unclear who exactly his bosses are and how they're able to function without any government interference. Killer Elite bills itself as being based on a true story and we're willing to bet the reality was a lot more interesting than what ends up onscreen here.

3. The action sequences lack the necessary oomph and showmanship.
McKendry is making his feature film debut here and it shows in the movie's choppily edited, sloppily choreographed set-pieces. To be fair for a moment, there are a few scenes that deliver, including a brutal bout between Spike and Danny in a hospital, Hunter handily dispatching an assassin in a Paris subway station (Bobby De Niro shows off some nice moves there, believe it or not) and the sequence pictured above, where Danny manages to attack a guy while being tied to a chair. But those moments are sadly few and far between. Most of the time, the battles are little more than a jumble of quick cuts, punctuated by the sound of heavy breathing and pounding fists on the noisy soundtrack.

4. Yvonne Strahovski is stuck playing the damsel in distress.
Anyone who watches Chuck (and granted, based on the show's ratings, that not a heck of a lot of people) knows that this Aussie actress is one of the most convincing bad-asses on television. So why the heck did McKendry casts her in a role where the only strenuous physical activity is baling hay? Strahovski plays Anne, the gorgeous farmer-next-door that falls for Danny while he's living in self-imposed exile deep in the Australian Outback. Once he's re-activated, she becomes a target, forcing Danny to put her under the protection of a newly-freed Hunter. Watching the septuagenarian De Niro act as a bodyguard for the erstwhile Agent Sarah Walker is one of the most unintentionally hilarious things about Killer Elite.

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