You'd be forgiven for mistaking "Killer Elite" for a remake of the 1975 intriguer "The Killer Elite." Rather, the new action picture is a renamed adaptation of Sir Ranulph Fiennes' 1991 book "The Feather Men." But you can't call a Jason Statham picture "The Feather Men." It just isn't done.
Rather shakily billed as "based on a true story," "Killer Elite" concerns fallout from the 1970s Oman War. A tribal Dubai sheik seeking revenge for his lost sons holds hostage grizzled special-ops man Hunter (Robert De Niro) to force his mentee Danny (Statham) into exacting justice. To plan and execute the assassinations of the SAS operatives whom the sheik holds responsible, Danny must come out of self-imposed retirement and call in favors with old friends, including the somewhat loose cannon Davies (Dominic Purcell).
When a clubby group of ex-SAS bankers and businessmen gets wind of what the "top-class professional assassins" are up to, they employ yet another ex-SAS "spook," Clive Owen's Spike, to put a stop to Danny. It's all doled out in oft-clunky dialogue (like the blunt summation "Omar was a dirty war. What we did there was questionable") that marks time between assorted bombs, chases, firefights and fistfights. Since those are the elements that get action junkies' butts in seats, audiences may not so much mind.
First-time feature director Gary McKendry handles the cloak-and-dagger-meet-ammo theatrics surprisingly well. The action alternates from been-there, done-that to in-your-face, eye-widening stuff, with a pinch of the absurd thrown in. What "Killer Elite" never manages is to convince us of its sociopolitical import (though not for lack of pretentious feints) or its emotional resonance (Danny's respectively romantic and platonic loves: Yvonne Strahovski as his Aussie girlfriend, and Hunter).
De Niro fans will get a charge out of seeing the 68-year-old actor go into action, and his dialogue scenes are zestier than the rest. Primarily, though, this is Statham's show (with a nice assist from Owen, wearing a milky left eye and a perpetual state of annoyance).
Just as the film has nothing fresh to say (unless you count "Killing's easy -- living with it's the hard part"), the lean, mean Statham has nothing fresh to offer, delivering the exact same benignly growly performance he always has. Those expecting John le Carre-level intrigue are right out of luck, but Statham fans can get their fix.