3 DAYS TO KILL Review: Lazy Days
Kevin Costner has been experiencing something of a renaissance of late. After a successful decade-long run in the ’80s, his career peaked with his 7-time Oscar-winning drama from 1990, Dances With Wolves (which included Best Picture and Best Director statues for him specifically). But from there, things didn’t go so well. It began with the plagued Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991) shoot and included the bomb Waterworld (1995). Yes, there were highlights (1996’s Tin Cup, for example), but noting could match his 1980s run and most of his subsequent films were forgettable.
On the verge of becoming a permanent trivia answer, Costner reemerged with a “Best Performance by an Actor in a Mini-Series or a Motion Picture Made for Television” Golden Globe win for his work in 2012’s TV mini-series Hatfields & McCoys. Once again back on the Hollywood map, he followed-up this work in 2013 with an excellent turn – one of the film’s few highlights, really – as Superman’s Earth father Jonathan Kent in Zack Snyder‘s Man of Steel. He then parlayed that into a trio of 2014 films: Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit; 3 Days to Kill; and Draft Day. I’ve yet to see the first and I liked the third, but I was most curious about that one in the middle.
Costner plays Ethan Renner, an aging CIA agent tasked with eliminating a group of people planning to buy a dirty bomb on the international arms market. Tasked with stopping the sellers is rising Agency star Vivi Delay (Amber Heard). Ethan holds up his end, but the sellers – The Albino (Tómas Lemarquis), and his elusive and mysterious boss, The Wolf (Richard Sammel) – get away. Because no one has ever seen The Wolf except for Ethan (even though he didn’t know it at the time), Vivi recruits him for one last job.
It’s “one last job” because Ethan has a terminal illness and only months to live. He takes the gig because Vivi has an experimental treatment (that isn’t guaranteed to work) that she essentially holds over him as incentive to participate. Complicating matters is Ethan’s desire to reconnect with his estranged wife Christine (Connie Nielsen) and teenage daughter Zooey (Hailee Steinfeld) in what could be his last days.
Two things you don’t want in an action/drama/thriller are absurdity and mundanity. Unfortunately, 3 Days to Kill has plenty of both, and both rear their crazy, boring heads during the opening gambit.
Everything about the set-up simply invalidates any suspension of disbelief one carries coming into a film like this. It begins with Vivi, a character we’re expected to believe goes from mousy agent to Machiavelli with the addition of a blonde wig and heels. Suddenly Superspy not only manages to find herself one step away from an international arms dealer whose identity has never been known by the entire CIA, she also winds up with access to the wonder-drug that will work wonders on Ethan’s disease.
About that wonder-drug: it’s a preposterous cheat and better suited for science fiction. Rather than use some creativity and devise a real time-based threat for Ethan to work against, the filmmakers slap him with a disease and give his new boss the secret treatment in an effort to create some kind of drama. It fails to do so because it’s so shoddily conceived. Then they double-down by adding the side effect to the drug that hallucinations begin if Ethan’s heart rate gets too high. This is only out-stupided by the notion that vodka takes the edge off the hallucinations. (Spoiler Alert: Ethan never thinks to carry a flask with him. How he survived decades as a CIA agent is beyond me.)
And don’t get me started on the family of squatters who are living in Ethan’s apartment. Just don’t.
So maybe you think that at least this crazy train will ride off the rails for some momentary thrills. Don’t get your hopes up.
Other than one scene where The Albino kills an agent in a creatively grizzly manner (the execution of which is left offscreen), director McG‘s big opening gambit is lifeless. Oh sure, bullets fly and bombs explode, but that only makes it loud, not exciting. Never was I on the edge of my seat throughout the entire open.
The rest of the film is no better. McG not only proves he cannot direct an action set-piece, he also proves he can’t direct a hand-to-hand combat scene with any sense of impact or fluidity, nor can he direct a car chase with any sense of speed or peril. And the big climax? There is no tension whatsoever and I found myself completely indifferent to how the whole thing would end.
One thing this inert action film teaches us is the importance of a compelling villain. When you look at the history of bad guys, the best bad guys are engaging or mesmerizing. Hans Gruber (Die Hard), Hannibal Lecter (The Silence of the Lambs), and even Darth Vader (the Star Wars trilogy) are all compelling to watch. Here, the only thing remotely interesting about a pasty bald guy and a nondescript middle-aged white man are their names, but once you realize they are lifeless, two dimensional characters, you wonder if they earned their monikers before they were cut from American Gladiator auditions. (If only they were so muscular.) Even Vivi, who is supposed to be something of an anti-hero or shady good guy (I guess?) is nothing more than bitchty, which, in the incapable hands of Heard, is so very tiresome.
With stagnant action and unmoving thrills, all that remains of the film is the drama. That’s okay, I guess. Nielsen’s estranged wife character really has little to do here – the drama is all about Ethan trying to be a dad (while trying to be a dying CIA assassin) to a girl he hasn’t known in over five years. There are a couple of touching moments, particularly one where Ethan, left to supervise Zooey while Christine is out of town, has something of a breakthrough with his daughter and is so excited about it that he leaves Christine a message to let her know what happened. It was an incredibly genuine moment, delivered with skill by cagey veteran Costner.
No one else in the cast is given anything remotely good to work with other than Heard who, I must stress, is terrible (which is unfortunate, because I liked her in All the Boys Love Mandy Lane). And Thierry Arbogast‘s cinematography, while usually dazzling (see The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec) is encumbered by McG’s clumsy direction.
It’s all so terribly unfortunate for Costner. Surely he thought that producer and co-screenwriter Luc Besson, known for some very slick films like 1994’s Leon: The Professional, could inject some stylized action into his career. Unfortunately, just the opposite happens. I can only hope that 3 Days to Kill doesn’t become Countless Days to Languish for Costner.