A man is tied to a chair. He's being brutally interrogated. But he's a man who takes shit from no one. And so—you have to see this—he rises up against his tormenters and in a martial-artsy fury takes them out. And then—you really have to see this—he goes crashing through a plate glass window, still tied to the chair, and plummets a good long way down to…
Yes, this is a Jason Statham movie. Which is not a bad thing. Statham, unusually among action stars, has a warm, contemplative charm. And as an actual athlete, his furious doings are an inspiration to legions of doughy moviegoers around the world.
No, the regrettable thing about this picture is most of the rest of it, which is undone by a lack of narrative clarity and thus momentum. Statham plays Danny, a retired mercenary living in bucolic tranquility in the Australian outback, tended by his girlfriend (the uncommonly fetching Yvonne Strahovski). One day Danny receives a message from Oman, with plane tickets attached. It seems that a fellow mercenary named Hunter (Robert De Niro)—Danny's mentor in international mayhem—is being held prisoner, and will be killed unless Danny uses those plane tickets.
Danny flies to Oman, and after a bit of preliminary ass-kicking is told by Hunter's captor, a dying sheikh (Rodney Afif), that in order to save his old friend's life, he must track down and terminate four commandos of Britain's Special Air Service (SAS) who once killed several of the sheikh's sons. Danny reluctantly accepts the assignment, and decamps for Paris to recruit some seasoned help (happily including the ebullient Dominic Purcell).
Meanwhile, in London, a shadowy group of ex-SAS geezers called the Feather Men is alarmed by the news of Danny's mission. They fear it will draw press attention to the nasty things they did in Oman years back. "I've got no problem with blood," one of them says. "It's ink I'm worried about." Danny must therefore be neutralized, and who better to do it than another former SAS havoc-wreaker named Spike (the definitively un-Spike-like Clive Owen), who departs on his own mission forthwith.
It's a credit to director Gary McKendry that he hasn't over-stuffed the movie with action clichés. There's a bit of fishtailing automotive uproar, a few explosions, some familiar roof-leaping and requisite machine-gunnery, and the usual complement of hand-to-hand hostilities. Nothing new, really; and some of it—like a chase sequence involving a swarm of bees—rather implausible. But McKendry's focus is on the story, of which there's an awful lot. Lurking around the edges of the confusing plot are a sketchy British agent of some sort (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), the sheikh's surviving no-goodnik son (Firass Dirani), and a tethered falcon whose purpose is never clear. Not to mention the four targeted killers, who are interchangeably unremarkable.
The script, which McKendry co-wrote, is also heavy with unfortunate dialogue. The phrase "He's your worst nightmare" is uttered not once, but twice. An expired character is said to be as "dead as Elvis." And at one point De Niro gives forth with "Life's like lickin' honey from a thorn." The man has said sillier things for a paycheck, but it's still disheartening to hear him say this.
The movie is more ambitious than a run-of-the-mill action flick, but it still feels rote. And the plot keeps unfolding beyond the point where you might wish it to end. (Even the conclusion doesn't really conclude it.) The film aspires to be more than disposable genre junk, and to some extent it succeeds. But it's still disposable.
Kurt Loder is a writer living in New York. His third book, a collection of film reviews called The Good, the Bad and the Godawful, will be out on November 8th from St. Martin's Press. Follow him on Twitter at kurt_loder.