By Matt Neufeld

September 23, 2011

In 1991, British writer, explorer and ex-military officer Ranulph Fiennes published “The Feather Men,” a controversial, widely-argued-about book about all sorts of secretive, mysterious, spyish assassins, operatives, mercenaries, military types, intelligence types, agents, double-agents, triple-agents, murky and questionable government types, shady sheiks and conspiracy-theory-style secret societies, all wrapped around equally mysterious and apparently real-life British covert operations in Oman during the 1970s, and that mission’s ensuing sociopolitical domino effects. There was one huge problem with the book: Many people, including those associated with the British Army’s Special Air Service, or SAS, which is a central aspect of the main story, bashed the book’s assertions and pointedly labeled the book’s main plot points as untrue, despite Fiennes’ claims to the contrary.

The controversy has raged on for the past 20 years, without any real absolution, with each side staking out its territory and digging in, with official government statements denying comment on the Oman operations, with some government and military officials blasting the book, with denials from SAS members’ families about the book’s accuracy, and with Fiennes going back and forth about what is fact and what is fiction. And who really knows what on earth happened with SAS officers in Oman in the 1970s—the convoluted post-World War II, post-imperialism-era actions by the British, the U.S., the Russians—anyone–in several countries, including Oman, remain muddled, controversial and complicated, and exactly who did what to whom, where, and how, remain points of heated contention. The dogs of war always seem to reside in unkempt, dishevelled kennels that tend to remain unclean, stained, dirtied and messy.

The conflicts swirling around “The Feather Men” would make a great movie. Fortunately, the original story told in “The Feather Men”—whether it’s true or not—makes for an even better movie, and director Gary McKendry (“Everything in This Country Must”), and screenplay writers McKendry, Fiennes and Matt Sherring have crafted that better movie in “Killer Elite,” which manages to rise above its source material’s real-life quarrels and fights and emerge as its own above-average spy-action-suspense thriller, succeeding in those areas of genre entertainment at a high enough level that you can put the question of whether it’s true or not aside, and just enjoy the film for what it is—one of the best action thrillers in years, one of the best spy films in years, and just a continuous thrill ride. The film is smartly directed, well-cast, well-written and the type of smart spy-action-suspense film that knows when to pace out the exposition scenes, the action scenes, the fight scenes, and the light sprinkles of hardened black humor that help alleviate the gripping action, suspense and violence. The film also does what the better spy, action and suspense films are supposed to do—raise important questions about the right-or-wrong roles of certain types of covert intelligence spies, agents and operatives in various political, military and intelligence operations around the globe, and whether, in the end, any of it was really worth the extensive and expensive time, money, efforts, lives and trouble.

Fortunately for filmgoers, “Killer Elite” is worth the time and trouble. It’s better than the last two Bond films, and it’s better than the second and third Bourne films, all of which were enjoyable spy-action-suspense films.

“Killer Elite” manages to pack in all the required assets of a rollicking, globe-trotting sociopolitical spy action suspense film—a core intriguing story with hordes of clever twists and turns, classic cat-and-mouse one-upmanship games of deception and deceit, a subtle level of mystery that keeps you guessing about who is going to do what to whom at what moment, the ensuing suspense that arrives from that mystery, plenty of interesting shady characters whose motives remain unclear, a mix of good guys, bad guys and guys who remain a questionable mix of good and bad, worldwide exotic locations actually shot on location, including sets in Wales, Australia and Morocco, and your rogue’s gallery of the aforementioned spies, assassins, operatives, government suits, henchmen, hitmen, thugs and your requisite beautiful female love interest, who actually plays a key part in keeping certain plot points grounded in reality, or what passes for reality in this type of story.

Jason Statham plays Danny Bryce, a shady (let’s face it, every character in this film is shady) assassin who works closely with his best assassin friend forever, Hunter (ably and strongly and amusingly played by a resoundingly fit and action-ready Robert DeNiro), and other similar covert types on various illicit and dangerous assassin operations around the world, basically killing for money. They’re good at what they do, and they get paid well. But years on the frontline of covert wars finally provokes a bit of a problem, as Hunter is kidnapped by a vengeful, revenge-minded, ailing shiek (a heavily-made-up Rodney Afif), who uses Hunter as bait to get Danny to fulfill a mission for the shiek, in exchange for $6 million. It seems that several of the sheik’s sons were killed by SAS soldiers during those Oman operations, and the sheik asks Danny to find the SAS operatives who killed his sons—and then get their confessions, kill them, and make the killings look like accidents so they don’t arouse any suspicion or investigation.

Well, you don’t have to be James Bond, Jason Bourne or Danny Bryce to know that that little mission is not going to go smoothly, and that the dominos will start to fall in various places as soon as the mission starts. Bryce’s team’s killings—ingenious operations that involve disguises, assumed identities, costumes, impersonations, electronic gadgets and that great globe-trotting—soon draw the attention of yet another shady group of operatives and assassins (let’s face it, everyone in this story is a member of a group of shady operatives) headed by Spike (a strong, powerful Clive Owen, demonstrating yet again why he should have been the new James Bond). Spike and his shady crew are working with an Illuminiti-style underground cabal of ex-SAS types who meet in “official” meetings and vote on illegal covert actions as though they were at some legal company board meeting. The assassins that work with this shady collective are known as “the feather men,” and they are as ruthless, deceitful and corrupt as Bryce, Hunter and their cohorts Davies and Meier, who are slickly and humorously played by a scarily brutish Dominic Purcell and a creepily cold Aden Young, respectively.

Watching these warring groups of decidely conflicted assassins and spies square off in chases, fights, surveillance stints and spy games—with everyone involved completely off the radar and off the grid—and with both groups operating as their own style of mercenary and with their own twisted, contorted views of right and wrong, is intensely enjoyable. The fact that everyone involved is operating illegally—including the government suits, the sheik and the sheik’s family members who get involved—just makes the story more intriguing and interesting. But everyone is working with their own respective codes of honor, too—Bryce to free Hunter, the sheik to exact revenge for his sons’ killings, Spike to avenge the deaths of his comrades, and the feather men’s cabal to uphold their place in the wider spy game. There are brief car chases and several intense fight scenes, but they are expertly handled, and they fit into the story well so they are not gratuitous. Actions happen here for a reason, and each action prompts a subsequent reaction, which keeps the story moving at a quick, brisk, fevered pace. But McKendry knows enough to slow things down at the right moments, and to inject some dark humor at just the right moments to lighten things up. The film is well-paced, well-timed and well-edited—requisites for a successful and smart action film. Kudos go out to the dozens of able and athletic stunt men, stunt drivers and fight choreographers who worked so hard to stage the intense, believable action and fight scenes in “Killer Elite.”

There are numerous above-average, strong performances by supporting actors in “Killer Elite,” including Purcell and Young and the ravishing, beautiful Yvonne Strahovski as Bryce’s love interest back home in Australia, but it’s really the power trio of Statham, DeNiro and Owen that anchor and propel this film. Jason Statham may not be the world’s greatest actor, but he has style, presence and charisma on camera, and he is about the most believable action star working today. He also makes great film choices, so he shines in above-average films, including the excellent but under-appreciated “The Bank Job” and the surprisingly fun remake of “The Italian Job.” He smolders, he moves well, he delivers his lines in a smooth, unforced macho whisper, and that charisma makes you want to root for him, and, in this film, for his character. You want Bryce to complete his assignment, free Hunter, and make it back home to his beautiful girlfriend. Even wild animals like Danny, Hunter says at one point. And you understand what he means. It is incredibly satisfying to see Robert DeNiro—at 68 years young—believably and ably and strongly blasting away scores of thugs with a monstrous machine gun and sucker-punching a knife-wielding thug with a few well-placed jabs in a subway stop and then quietly walk away as if he just mailed a letter. It’s a great, smart and savvy move for McKendry to cast DeNiro, and a smart choice for DeNiro to take this role. To be a believable action hero at 68—well, who doesn’t want to be that? And Clive Owen, the Man Who Should Have Been Bond, is actually a bit terrifying as Spike—cold, heartless, ruthless and sneaky. And to see Statham, DeNiro and Owen squaring off in these desolute, dusty, sandy locales with guns blazing, well, that’s just a good way to spend some time at a spy-action-suspense movie.

In real life, the consequences of shady, questionable and possibly illegal covert political, military and intelligence operations have repercussions that last for eternity—and you don’t have to recon much farther past the news articles in recent weeks, months and years in the United States to realize that simple fact. In the movies, fortunately, we can enjoy these operations and repercussions in a different light–an entertaining light—for two hours, with heroes, anti-heroes and non-heroes, with clever one-liners and with smart plot twists and fun action scenes—like those in “Killer Elite.” Unfortunately, at the end of those two hours, we have to walk through that fourth wall and once again confront the world that we’re told is real in “Killer Elite”—without really knowing, still, what is actually real and what is actually fiction. That’s what makes real life so troubling—and that’s what makes “Killer Elite” so entertaining.

Killer Elite (105 minutes, at area theaters) is Rated R for strong violence, language and some sexuality/nudity.

Matt Neufeld is a longtime journalist, actor and film critic in the Washington and Baltimore areas. He has participated in many local film events and projects in the region, and he has appeared as an actor, supporting actor and extra in more than 45 films projects, at all levels, during the past 20 years. He was previously a daily local news reporter and features writer for The Washington Times and The Frederick News-Post, and he was the media relations publicist for The Washington Performing Arts Society. Matt is currently the News Editor for Carroll Publishing in Bethesda.