Monday, September 26, 2011

Killer Elite: Definitions of Patriotism

Oil is dirty, especially when it's stained with blood.
I wrote in my “pre-review” of the trailer that I was concerned with motive and finding the “villain” in this film because it's difficult to find those “villainous” qualities which a general audience can agree with and to my very, very pleasant surprise, Gary McKendry's Killer Elite delivers on not only a villain, but the complexity of the moral structure in which the characters are operating which provides all of them with a motive that just happens to be conflicting with everyone else's.
It reaches back to 1980-81 to tell us why we are having the problems we are today: the wrong morals got filed under the name “patriotism,” which acts both as the motive and the villain; there aren't any villains in this film, just good men with dirty hands, and some with more dirt than others. While Danny (Jason Statham) kills several men to avenge a oil-wealthy sheik whose sons were murdered by British SAS special agents during the Oman war in order to free his best friend Hunter (Robert deNiro), Spike (Clive Owens) is an "off the radar" operative who protects former SAS agents. Unwittingly, Danny is set-up by the government to smooth things over with the oil-wealthy sheik, while Spike "gets in the way." Danny's patriotism is taking revenge for a wronged sheik and saving his friend; Spike's is protecting those who (right or wrong) carried our their government's orders in a shadowy war and the government's idea of a patriot is the one who can get the most oil... in this movie, those three definitions are in deadly conflict.
Clive Owen as Spike. His left eye was shot out during  an SAS assignment and he has a fake eye. Usually the symbolism of such a character trait would signify a flaw, meaning that character had flawed visions or was unable to "see" what was really going on; with Spike, however, he sees (before anyone else) that SAS agents are being targeted by Danny and have to be protected, and he sees that the government is sacrificing agents to ease tensions with the Middle East.
Why is that important? It demonstrates how the British Empire is being led by the nose by a "crust of desert floating on oil" because it uses far more resources than it can sustain on its own. Doing anything necessary to have primary access to those oil fields (including killing Middle Easterners and British agents) is a serious moral and economic conflict the entire world must face and openly address.Go back to the trailer at the beginning of this post: at 0:12, there is a black Benz which sustains an explosion, then flips over. That car is the symbol of the entire film, because the car represents motive (a vehicle is what "drives" us in one direction vs going in a different direction) and it flipping over means that the world has gotten out of control and turned upside-down. The opening lines are "The world is in chaos" because of the oil-wars, and that could be just as applicable today as in 1980.
A bloody fight scene. This was painful to watch. Spike is trying to protect former SAS agents Danny has to kill in revenge for a sheik whose sons died as a result of a "fuzzy war" the British government waged in Oman to get oil rights. When a government agent becomes involved, three different (and legitimate) definitions of "patriotism" come into play, but each is really incompatible with the others.
It does borrow from a few other action films, such as The Bourne Identity (2002): Jason Bourne doesn't want to kill again because there were children around; in Killer Elite, Danny opens the door of the black car that has "flipped out of control" to kill a man and behind him is a young child who gets blood all over her face. That child symbolizes the future of the world and the blood that stains the generation growing up in the 80's. It also borrows from Quantum of Solace (2008) and the government's unquenchable thirst for oil and its willingness to do nearly anything for it. Like Kill Bill (2003), it makes “revenge” an open door for a sequel. But who said that borrowing good things from good films was a bad thing?... I didn't.
In the trailer, you're made to believe Danny flips that chair on top of Spike, but that man on the floor on the right side is the government agent who set Danny up. In opposite terms of the "black car flipping out of control," Danny flipping upside-down in the chair signifies him trying to "right the world," and put things back in their proper order; however, the film recognizes that it can't be done.
What does the film do well that sets it apart from other films? Killer Elite demonstrates the deadliness of having a “relative” moral system: Hunter takes a stupid job so he can have $6 million dollars, because even though he knows he shouldn't take the job, he wants the money. Danny kills.... seven or eight (I lost count) to save Hunter, although Danny doesn't want to and knows that he shouldn't. Spike is set on avenging the death of the SAS agents who killed the sheik's sons; everyone in this tangle of knots has a value but none of them are willing to uphold an absolute value above the “circumstantial values,” i.e., Thou Shalt Not Kill, Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery, Thou Shalt Not Consume More Oil and Resources Than Your Country Can Self-Sufficiently Provide, you know, the basics.
Hunter (Robert deNiro) and Danny. Hunter is the most problematic character because he's so materialistic. He stops while they're escaping to get his watch, he takes a huge cut of "blood money" to "cover his expenses and the entire series of events was set off because he wanted to get $6 million to do a killing. As "the older generation" Hunter represents those who were motivated by greed, whereas both Danny and Spike symbolize more idealistic goals.
There's an important symbol: a hawk with a mask on. The predatory bird symbolizes Danny who "hunts down" the men he has to kill to free Hunter, but just as Danny doesn't realize the British government is allowing him to assuage the wounds of the sheik so the British government can get on good terms with his only remaining son, Danny is also "blind" to the consequences all his killing is doing. And this is the importance of Killer Elite as an action film: it recognizes consequences. No one (agent or government) can kill all those people, spill all that blood, in the name of oil or anything else, and a deadly, world-wide chain of events not be set off which is worse than the original problems. In previous action films, killing was just a part of the "spree" of dirty work which had to be done, but in the constant world-jumping (it goes from Mexico to Australia, to Paris to London to Oman back to London, etc.) there is the loss of privacy, i.e., what I do in the privacy of London doesn't effect Oman, but Killer Elite makes sure that you know differently, that every action has a moral consequence and this is what makes it a far better movie than critics are crediting it with.
If they hadn't found themselves fighting on the opposite sides of a not-so-clear-cut battle, these two probably would have been best friends. While Spike's "fake eye" is symbolically a problem for the character, Danny frequently wears sunglasses throughout the film and even has to "let his eyes adjust to the light." But the symbol verifying both characters in their virtue is Spike has a wife and child, and Danny has a girlfriend with whom he's planning his life. As viewers, we can't underestimate the importance of "carrying on their line" in the battle of good and evil because (even in a morally relative world) the "hero" has to continue their line on and both Danny and Spike seem to do do.
The last problem is the title, Killer Elite. Why does the civilized world have to have--not only a special class of killers--but an elite class of killers? For the government to employ and depend upon killers to do its "dirty work," doesn't speak well of civilization and the "moral superiority" we think we have over the not-so-distant past. "It isn't over 'till both sides say it is," different characters say at different points in the script; at the end of the film, "it" isn't over, and that's really the underlying lesson of the film. History is never finished.