It’s easy to make incorrect assumptions about 2011’s Killer Elite, as it comes across as just another generic Jason Statham actioner with the usual assortment of fisticuffs and violence. But in reality, this is an intense spy thriller with an ’80s setting and a ’70s action sensibility, and it’s purportedly based on a true story. Indeed, Killer Elite is an adaptation of Sir Ranulph Fiennes’ 1991 novel The Feather Men, which claims to be true but has sparked ongoing controversy about its veracity. Even if Fiennes’ book is fictional, Killer Elite remains a well-made piece of action entertainment; a full-throttle machismo fest with more story and character interaction than less competent blockbusters. It’s a completely empty technical exercise lacking in substance, but it’s smarter than anticipated.

Ex-special ops agent Danny Bryce (Statham) is a mercenary for hire under the guidance of veteran soldier-of-fortune Hunter (De Niro). Danny decides to leave the business following a hit in Mexico, and retires to rural Australia seeking a more peaceful life. However, Danny soon learns that a vengeful sheik in the Middle-East has kidnapped Hunter, and will only let him go if Danny carries out a dangerous assignment. In exchange for Hunter’s life, Danny has to track down, obtain confessions from and kill the former SAS operatives responsible for murdering the sheik’s sons. As Danny travels the globe with a ragtag team orchestrating the assassinations, the ruthless, idealistic Spike (Owen) sets out to stop the killers. Spike is a member of a clandestine group known as The Feather Men, who operate in the shadows to protect their best interests.

Killer Elite comes up unmistakably short in terms of humanity and substance. Its runtime is pretty hefty at almost two hours, yet the film never lets us get to know any of these characters – instead, they go through the motions with a bare minimum of development and with only one or two distinguishable traits. And that’s an issue, because the main players are fundamentally villains and we don’t really have anyone to root for. As a result, the razzle-dazzle never invokes any emotion or feeling, rendering the film enjoyable in the moment but completely hollow. To be fair, there is an attempt to bestow Danny with dimension by introducing a love interest and touching upon the sense of assassin guilt he feels, but this stuff is only partially successful; it never gains the full traction or gravity it could’ve achieved in defter hands. At the very least, though, Killer Elite is more focused on plot twists and fascinating espionage antics than brainless ‘splosions, maintaining interest despite the lack of emotional investment and only very rarely calling for a suspension of disbelief.

From a visual standpoint, Killer Elite is a very slick and cool movie indeed, with tag-teaming cinematographers Simon Duggan and Alain Duplantier maintaining an accomplished sense of style from start to finish. Furthermore, the film evokes the 1980s time period with subtle believability, as the frame is delicately permeated with ’80s-specific background details rather than beating us over the head with stereotypes. Director Gary McKendry also seems to be aware that overzealous CGI cannot match the raw testosterone of real stunt work and impressive choreography. Accordingly, the practically-achieved action set-pieces are grounded and bursting with excitement. McKendry is no John Woo, but his action sequences are fluid and fun (not to mention agreeably violent), though the shaky camerawork is a bit irritating from time to time.

Leading the cast are Jason Statham and Clive Owen, who imbue the material with more credibility than someone like Sylvester Stallone or Arnold Schwarzenegger would’ve offered. Statham assumed his proverbial tough-as-nails routine here, but at least he’s good at what he does, and he has a stronger screen presence than more subpar action stars. Owen (sporting a hilariously hammy moustache) impresses as well – he’s not an especially versatile performer, but he is badass and watchable. Probably the biggest standout is Dominic Purcell of Prison Break fame (sporting a moustache of the handlebar variety) who plays one of Danny’s cronies. Purcell is a good fit for his character, as he has the right brutish look and attitude. Meanwhile, Robert De Niro has more minor role than the marketing campaign suggested. He apparently spent a total of 10 days on the film, so he only pops up here and there, though he does participate in some awesome action and he’s better here than most critics seem to think.

In many ways, Killer Elite is a throwback movie – it harkens back to an era when action-thrillers actually had balls; when muscular bravado was mixed with violent R-rated action to overcome deficiencies in the depth and storytelling department. While the production is not quite “elite”, this is a better-than-average action film which delivers satisfying thrills and action on an impressively consistent basis. Sometimes, that’s just enough to warrant at least a mild recommendation.

6.8/10