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MOVIE REVIEW: 'Killer' cast still can't make this an 'Elite' movie

In this film image released by Open Road Films, Robert De Niro , left, and Jason Statham are shown in a scene from "Killer Elite." (AP Photo/Open Road Films, Dan Smith) 

In this film image released by Open Road Films, Robert De Niro , left, and Jason Statham are shown in a scene from "Killer Elite." (AP Photo/Open Road Films, Dan Smith) 

KILLER ELITE

(R)

2 out of 4 starsPitting together the industry's top action star (Jason Statham), an intense, smoldering Englishman (Clive Owen) and an acting elder statesman (Robert De Niro) in a political/espionage thriller was a great idea but evidently not wonderful enough to generate major (or even second tier) studio interest. After watching it you'll understand why.

The generically titled "Killer Elite" (based on daintily titled novel "The Feather Men" by Sir Ranulph Fiennes) is supposedly about real events, although many in the know profess doubt. That really doesn't matter. What counts is how well it works as a movie. The answer: a tad less than half of the time.

The opening salvo -- having little to do with the rest of the story -- certainly sets the bar high. The Aussie Bryce (Statham) and his American mentor Hunter (De Niro) are somewhere in the bowels of Mexico in the '80s charged with taking out ... some guy. We don't know if he's good or bad but he's important enough to require an armed motorcade escort.

Something that doesn't happen during the job makes Bryce realize he's had enough of the mercenary thing and he retires to the countryside of his homeland to live with his beautiful and impossibly patient girlfriend Anne (Yvonne Strahovski).

A couple years later, Bryce gets a packet from a mystery sender informing him that if he doesn't travel to another bowel -- this one in the Mideast -- Hunter, now a kidnapped prisoner, will be murdered. Showing far more loyalty than smarts, Bryce shows up and decides to take on an assignment that more resembles an overly fussy scavenger hunt than actual get-it-done secret mission. With very little tweaking, this plot point could easily be expanded to provide the basis for a satirical spy spoof -- it's that silly.

With his patented unsmiling mug and five o'clock shadow intact, Statham's character hopscotches all over Europe, back to Australia, back to the Mideast, back to Europe and so on and so forth. In tandem with two guys who look more like late '70s lounge lizards than secret ops, Bryce kinda sorta gets the job done but in the process the movie loses its thriller angle and turns into just another Statham action flick with rote chase scenes and explosions.

Not showing up until early in the second act, Spike -- played by Owen -- somewhat offsets the audio/visual overkill as a former member of a secret British hit squad who gets pulled out off forced retirement after the death of one of his former mates.

Exhibiting that rare but welcomed fire-breathing machismo so well realized in "Closer" and "Sin City," Owen's Spike becomes the fly in the ointment for both Bryce and his own former overseers -- squirrely stuffed-shirt types -- all of them completely devoid of loyalty or a working backbone.

Oscar-nominated short film and former TV commercial director Gary McKendry makes his feature debut with "Killer Elite" and it's clear he's trying way too hard. While having four screenwriters push and pull the script every which way certainly didn't help, McKendry simply couldn't decide on the tone -- and took far too long in the process. Even though the movie is only 105 minutes long, it feels more like two hours, which is surprising for an action flick.

If you're going for De Niro or Owen, be forewarned: each is on-screen for around 30 minutes each. If you're going for Statham, you'll get your money's worth and then some. He's all over the place and at one point takes out two guys while sitting down and tied to a chair. He does most of his stuff without a stunt double and it looks great -- and terribly dangerous. Whatever Statham got paid for his work in this film, it wasn't nearly enough. (Open Road)