Not being an idiot, I didn't actually expect Killer Elite to be any damn good, excited though I was for the prospect of watching Jason Statham square off against Clive Owen. Yet Killer Elite was far, far worse than would have seemed possible, even with those two not-entirely-infallible actors, even with Robert De Niro, who gave up even trying to make good films a decade ago or longer. It's awful - not just awful, but awful and badly made, which is a hell of lot rarer in Hollywood studio fare than you might assume. With all that quality-checking that goes on, things as inept as Killer Elite typically get fixed somewhere down the line, but maybe none of the executives saw any reason to give a shit.

Two things happen at the very beginning of the movie that tell us right off that things are going to be pretty rough for the next 116 minutes: first, a title card describes a world of chaos, violence, war, depleted oil supplies, and general international misery that is customarily solved via extra-legal means. This text lingers just long enough that it becomes appallingly obvious that director Gary McKendry is holding on for some ironic, thought-provoking reveal; then he holds for a few more seconds and up fade the words, "It was 1980". Or "The year was 1980." Whatever. Point is - HEAD BLOWN! Zohmigod, 1980 was JUST LIKE TODAY, with all the oil warfare and the violence in the Middle East. It was, for me, one of those perfect moments in which the filmmakers' asshatery was so profound that it was very nearly a tangible thing. Not to mention the horrible implication that somebody, somewhat, wanted us to take Killer Elite as some manner of story that explains not just how 1980 was, but how 2011 is as well, and cycle of time & neverending violence between the West and the Islamic world or I don't even know what.

Then the next title read "Based on a true story", and confirmed the implication.

In Killer Elite, Statham plays presumably real-life person Danny Bryce, who was a top-notch killer for hire before he was obliged to kill a target right in front of the target's child. It so unnerved him that he retired to Australia, where he took up a peaceful farming life with the very pretty Anne (Yvonne Strahovski). Unfortunately, his much older partner Hunter (De Niro), is still in the game, and manages to get himself in deep shit with Sheikh Amr (Rodney Afif), who wants somebody to kill the British SAS agents responsible for the deaths of his sons. Danny doesn't care about the $6 million reward for this job, but he does care about Hunter, and so off he goes.

Aha! but now we come to the "vs Clive Owen" half of things. He plays Spike Logan, formerly of the SAS, and now a member of a legally questionable group of former agents hulking about in silence and protecting themselves against outside forces. Such as, oh, an assassin who wants to kill three SAS men as quickly as he possibly he can, so as to get back to Australia and anonymity.

If I was going to look for nice things to say, one of them might be this: given that Owen and Statham are both beloved movie stars, the film needed to find a way to make both of them likable even though one of them has to be the protagonist and one has to be the antagonist, and it succeeds: the grafting of the Owen "hunting the killer" procedural-style storyline is handled very well in this regard. But I am not really looking for nice things to say, on account of how much Killer Elite squanders its cast (Owen shows up after forever, De Niro gets nothing at all to do until the tacked-on fourth act that seems to exist primarily so that he does have something) and can't even manage the not-terribly-artful task of being a good "Jason Statham growls and beats people up" picture.

This is not entirely the fault of McKendry, though it starts with him: the first-timer has no particular sense of how to stage action, or how to build scenes around Statham's limitations as an actor (for even though I adore the man, I must concede that he can do only one thing, and it is entirely incumbent upon the filmmakers to do whatever they can with that thing). And so the film is boring, although there are a few bits and pieces every so often - in particular, a three-way fight between Owen, Statham, and some dude in which the former are both restrained in some way and both still manage to win; it is easily the best-choreographed sequence in the movie, right up until the editor John Gilbert turns it into a slurry of mismatched scenes, though I am not sure to what degree we can blame the editor for anything, or blame what he was handed.

The film absolutely does cut together for absolute shit. The trend towards choppy action scenes is part of it, and even though that trend has been receding for a solid 15 months now, it's not terrifically exciting that the folks behind Killer Elite are slow on the uptake. The footage is also just a wreck: as usual, everything has been turned into a fever dream of unlikely colors with post-production digital intermediate, but it's been done so indifferently here that some exterior scenes literally don't match - the sky goes from tan to pink to white to brown all in the space of 15 or so shots. You don't have to notice that kind of thing consciously for it to be completely distracting and disorienting - that's exactly why Hollywood continuity filmmaking exists, to draw all possible attention away from the seams. Something tells me that Gary McKendry is not trying to make an experimental film, though I'd respect him for it if he was.

Everything else is exactly as hurtfully banal as you'd expect from an action movie so typical that it practically embodies the worst that contemporary action can achieve: uniformly bad acting (including the single worst Clive Owen performance I've ever seen), which is not a huge shock in the proximity of a script where tortured lines of dialogue like "That's why we're called the Feathermen. Because our touch is light" are the norm, not the exception. I can't stand that it wasted what is sure to be the only pairing of two such uniquely badass actors; I shouldn't hesitate to hate it, if I thought it deserved that much of my energy.