"I'm done with killing," mutters Danny, a weary former assassin played by Jason Statham. He's been out of the game for two years after nearly shooting a child during a hit in Mexico, and catching a bullet in the arm himself.
"Well, maybe killing ain't done with you," responds his associate, a crime-world greaser, keen to force Danny back into the game for one last job.
The opening 15 minutes of Killer Elite is so stuffed with action movie clichés, stale dialogue and entire scenes that feel recycled from other movies, it's hard to be sure whether first-timers Gary McKendry (director) and Matt Sherring (writer) have watched too many action movies, or too few.
Not completely devoid of originality, the scene in which Statham's infinitely resourceful assassin uses a loaf of bread as a silencer is enough to elicit a chuckle. But moments like this are few and far between.
Set in the early 1980s and jumping between Britain, France, Australia and Oman, Killer Elite takes a similarly fast-paced approach to the Bourne movies. But unlike the immediately sympathetic Jason Bourne, here it's hard to know which characters to root for. Supposedly based on a true story, it's possible that McKendry wanted to paint the shades of grey that exist in the real world of espionage and assassinations, but if that's the case, too much effort is wasted making Statham's semi-repentant mercenary seem like the good guy that he so clearly isn't.
Danny is forced back into the game to save Hunter (Robert De Niro), another rather nasty assassin whom the director wants us to like, or at least think is "cool". Hunter has been kidnapped by Sheikh Amr, an Omani who lost three of his four sons at the hands of Britain's SAS during the Battle of Mirbat, (a real-life embarrassment to the UK military). To free his pal, Danny must hunt and kill the three soldiers responsible. When the SAS veteran Spike (Clive Owen) learns of the plan he sets out to disrupt the mission, but his own efforts are being blocked by a mysterious organisation with a sinister motive.
There's little to distinguish Danny from any of the other parts Statham has played in the past 10 years and while some find his monotone delivery hard to bear, he delivers the action goods with predictable skill. Owen provides the film's only emotionally nuanced performance, but it's largely buried under a pile of bad writing and muddled direction. While the period detail is painstakingly recreated, murky cinematography makes it hard to actually enjoy what's on screen.
If Killer Elite took itself less seriously its broken moral compass would be more forgivable, but unfortunately the stakes never seem high enough to justify the film's body count. The story, with plenty of twists and turns, could be fascinating, but is so mishandled that it's rendered banal and unoriginal. Following it might be a challenge too, particularly with the voice in the back of your head constantly yelling: "What on earth is Robert De Niro doing in this movie?"