Starring as Liam Neeson in a film Liam Neeson apparently didn’t want to star in, Kevin Costner continues his ascension back to top-tier movie star status with this requisite silly action outing. McG’s “3 Days to Kill” casts Costner as your standard-issue former spy, a regular guy just trying to do regular guy things (like not killing people for pay) who gets sucked back in, thanks to a seemingly shady promise to help heal his personal life.
After a botched operation meant to unmask and capture two big time baddies, Costner’s Ethan Renner (yes, apparently someone is a fan of the latest “Mission: Impossible” film) loses his entire team in gruesome fashion, misses out on capturing a major target, and learns he has terminal brain cancer. Unconcerned with tying up professional loose ends, Ethan heads to Paris to spend his final days reconnecting with his ex-wife Christine (Connie Nielsen) and teen daughter Zooey (Hailee Steinfeld). But while Ethan couldn't care less about dirty bombs and global terrorism, his ostensible boss Vivi Delay (Amber Heard) is desperate for retribution and bloodshed.
The bad guys at the center of the operation are referred to by nicknames that are laughably generic – “Let them get The Albino, you get The Wolf!” – despite being delivered with the maximum of seriousness (which might be telling when it comes to the film as a whole). The spy plot itself is wholly generic and woefully inessential, just bad guys and good guys and lots of crisply carried briefcases. Ethan isn’t even the best spy around (in their first meeting, Vivi refers to his inability to become a “top shelf” agent like herself) and he’s probably not even the best spy for the job at hand: he’s just the best spy who has even possibly seen The Wolf in person. His old school style for getting things done (lots of punching, a generous use of duct tape, even a jumper cable or two) is amusing enough, and a few large-scale fight sequences, including one that is so decidedly French that someone's face actually gets slammed into a tray of croissants, are engaging enough.
Despite his initial resistance, Vivi promises Ethan the one thing he can’t punch a guy in the face for – more time on Earth – in the form of an “experimental drug” that arrives in its own little crocodile case. Is it a ruse? Is Vivi actually expediting his death? Ethan’s reactions to the drug don’t seem wholly promising, as he routinely slips into a hallucinogenic state (read: it looks like he’s in the throws of a bad trip set to bad house music) when his heart rate gets too high. This is not a good thing for a man whose job is to track, chase, and murder people. That tends to get the blood flowing.
Heard is tasked here with using her sexuality as a weapon, but for all her beauty and natural guile, her Vivi wields her feminine wiles with all the grace of a sledgehammer. She’s so over-the-top that she initially (and continually) scans as a villain, and her panache for both luxe clothing and a ready supply of wigs certainly doesn’t help when trying to determine if Vivi can be trusted. Costner and Heard are stilted in most of their interactions with each other, which only adds to the sense that Vivi is somehow off-kilter, though that may be unintentional, like so much of the film seems to be.
While Costner and Heard don’t exhibit a natural chemistry with each other (though they eventually settle into something passable enough), the leading man has much more success with Steinfeld as his just-rebellious-enough teen daughter, Zooey. The heart of “3 Days to Kill” is Ethan’s attempt to make up for years of absenteeism to the women in his life, and while the interactions between father and daughter are frequently cheesy, they appear to be rooted in real emotion, and Steinfeld and Costner are quite good together. Steinfeld adds appropriate punch and zing to the film, and her installation of Icona Pop’s zippy “I Love It” as her father’s ringtone piles on fresh humor even when she’s not around (you better believe that phone goes off at the most inopportune of moments).
Despite already having plenty of plot to drive it (and, at 117 minutes, the film frequently drags and could stand some tightening up in the editing room), “3 Days to Kill” still makes room to add in what can only be described as one of the most truly bizarre subplots to crop up in a mainstream action film in decades. Upon returning to Paris to get his affairs in order, Ethan finds that a lively multi-generational family of squatters has overtaken his apartment. Due to French law (yes, this is a real issue in France), he can’t kick them out in the middle of winter (yes, even though they are squatting in his own home), leading to all sorts of wacky interactions when he returns to the apartment to torture and interrogate witnesses.
That subplot is indicative of the major problem of “3 Days to Kill,” that the film’s tone is wildly uneven, an issue that initially reads as just distracting (the first act is a mix of bone-crunching action and family drama, all tossed with an extra side of unintentional humor) and then simply gives way to accidental entertainment (the second act is so funny and so goofy that it seems as if it must be on purpose, though its eventual return to hard-bitten action dashes that hope). A dizzying array of the very funny and the passably action-oriented, the final act of “3 Days to Kill” gives way to a wholly nonsensical yet strangely crowd-pleasing plot twist that encapsulates so much of what works in the film and so much of what really doesn’t.
SCORE: 5.8 / 10