3 Days to Kill makes a point of flashing Luc Besson’s name across the screen, even though he’s not the director. That distinction goes to McG, whose name really feels like it should inspire some kind of good joke, but if it’s out there, I haven’t heard it. Just like the Luc Besson connection is going to inspire a lot of cinephiles to tell their friends, between exasperations of pretension, that he’s the guy who directed The Fifth Element – and then they immediately follow up with a recommendation of Leon or, The Professional. And well they might, because Leon is an excellent film.
But it’s also the film that 3 Days to Kill is going to be compared to, negatively. And while Leon is a better film, 3 Days is not a bad one – or, at least, it shouldn’t be considered bad because it’s not another film.
Kevin Costner is Ethan, a semi-retired hitman, working for the U.S. Government and doing his last or next-to-last job. His task is to prevent the sale of a dirty bomb by an ominously, though accurately named terrorist called “The Albino.” The deal goes sour, and people die, but Ethan catches a glimpse of “The Albino”’s boss, “The Wolf.” Now Ethan’s alone in Paris, living in a flat that has been taken over by a sweet tribe of Parisian homeless. He can’t evict them because of Paris law. And Ethan is sick.
And Ethan’s estranged wife Christine (Connie Nielsen) lives in Paris. And his daughter Zoey (Hailee Steinfeld) lives in Paris with her mother. And Ethan decides to reconnect with them, because he’s sick, and Ethan doesn’t know how long he has. Christine is estranged because she couldn’t handle Ethan’s work. Fair enough. Ethan can barely handle his work. And the moment he makes a promise to Christine that he’s given up the life, a mysterious CIA agent (Amber Heard) shows up to offer him an experimental drug that may be the cure to his sickness.
Most of this you can gather from the trailer. Some of it is stupid, some of it is cheesy. And it doesn’t need to be, because at its heart, 3 Days to Kill is clever, funny, rousing, and sweet. And the bearer of that heart, whose performance I hope doesn’t go unnoticed, is Kevin Costner. Whatever the contributions of McG or Besson may be, the biggest misstep in this film is that its tone is all over the place: It goes from a semi-self-aware comedy to melodrama and never decides sternly which one it wants to be – nor dedicates itself enough to pull both off. And yet Costner somehow balances the two.
Maybe he’s a little too spry for his age, but I buy his weariness. And I buy his refusal to let a running gag die. And I don’t know how he found the way to go from hard-assedly entering a rave to kicking a gang of collective teenage asses with moves that make me winded typing this inspiring a half-assedly goofy callback to The Bodyguard and not look buffoonish.
The erratic shifts from solemnity to farce are, I think, the faults of a director and writer who lack confidence in their material and hide behind an obnoxiously winking self-awareness. Heard they seemed to have let in on the joke, and every time she shows up it’s a cringe. Steinfeld and Nielsen appear aware of the joke but try to disregard it. You can take or leave them. But Costner I kind of admired, because, while everyone around him may be snickering, he’s doing his damnedest to make it work, and more than a few times, it does.