3 DAYS TO KILL finds sickly super-spy Ethan Renner (Kevin Costner) trying to reconnect with his family after a botched mission lands him in the hospital—and at death’s door. Eager to make up for his time away from home, the CIA “jobber” awkwardly adjusts to placating real people with real emotions instead of shooting them between the eyes.
Directed by action ace McG (CHARLIE’S ANGELS, TERMINATOR SALVATION) and produced by Luc Besson (TAKEN, LEON: THE PROFESSIONAL), the film endeavors to transform Costner the same way UNKNOWN and TAKEN remade Liam Neeson: It gives an acclaimed-but-mature marquee star prolonged shelf life as a born-again badass hero.
The gambit mostly works, affording Costner—who’s played toughs before (THE BODYGUARD, REVENGE)—free range in a better-than-average espionage thriller peppered with plenty of bullet-pumping and bone-snapping. But 3 DAYS also has a lot of heart—and humor—thanks to how well Costner’s repentant ruffian clicks with estranged wife Tina (the lovely Connie Nielsen) and spunky teenage daughter Zooey (Hailee Steinfeld).
Ethan’s devoted the better part of his adult life and sacrificed his marriage to working as a cold-blooded CIA “cleaner,” methodically neutralizing terrorists and other high-profile baddies with a few squeezes of the trigger. The films opens in Serbia—at the lavish Hotel Jugoslavija—where Ethan and his surveillance van team hope to prevent the transfer of a dirty bomb from a creepy weapons dealer called The Albino (Tomas Lemarquis) to their primary target, the villainous “Wolf” (Richard Sammel). We get the impression Ethan’s a pro, but he’s showing his age—and poor health—when he takes a time-out to phone Zooey on her birthday and can’t stifle his coughs. Inside the hotel, The Albino “makes” one of the agents, prompting a cavalcade of gunfire and explosions. A concussive blast hammers Ethan to the pavement outside, and both Albino and Wolf escape. Ethan comes to in a hospital, where a CIA physician informs him the cough is cancer. He’s got three months to live. Maybe five if he’s lucky.
Retired and on borrowed time, Ethan looks up his wife and kid in Paris to address his failure as an absent husband and father and—he admits later—make his final months his best. Only now his old apartment is inhabited by a family of squatters, whose gentle patriarch awaits the birth of a granddaughter. It’s just the first of many glitches that help distance Ethan from his hit-man past and groom him for a decidedly more humanitarian future. What’s left of it, anyway.
Tina isn’t tickled to see him again. She tearfully relents to his playing daddy to Zooey while she’s away on business after he discloses his grim secret, but visitation is conditioned upon quitting his old ways, which gets tricky when undercover operative Viva (Amber Heard) corners Ethan with a proposal: Kill The Wolf in exchange for big bucks to bequeath his family—and an experimental medication that’ll keep death at bay.
Suckered back in the game, Ethan works his way through The Wolf’s hierarchy of henchman, shooting goons and stomping faces in between dates with his daughter. Unaware of her dad’s terminal condition (and previous employment), Zooey is initially defiant and unwilling to let Ethan in. The Parisian prep schooler scolds him for abandoning her, blows off his gift of a purple bicycle, and insists on calling him by his first name instead of dad.
It’s only after Ethan turns on some paternal charm (prepping dinner, defusing a bad hair freak-out, and revealing his technological un-hipness) that Zooey drops her guard and starts placing trust in her ol’ pops. She offers fashion help and introduces him to her soccer-playing beau, Hugh (also good for a few laughs). They walk, talk, and revisit a favorite carousel. Ethan scores major points when he rescues Zooey from a nasty encounter at a rave and teaches her how to properly punch a bully. Zooey returns the favor by programming Ethan’s cell-phone with her ringtone (Icona Pop’s bubbly hit “I Love It”), establishing a gag that never gets old.
Ethan abducts The Wolf’s associates but can’t stomach (or justify) killing crime world fringe-dwellers anymore. Instead, he taps driver Mitat for tips on raising teen daughters and presses Italian moneyman Guido for his mom’s spaghetti recipe. Again, more well-earned chuckles. And just when we think Ethan’s about to relapse and bludgeon some poor schmuck for answers, his phone starts blaring ridiculous dance music, signifying a daughter in need. Despite his best efforts, he can’t keep his two lives separate; he’s barely able to juggle appointments with Zooey and Viva between car chases and supermarket shoot-outs.
Overpower five armed thugs in ten seconds? Done. Need help picking a dress for prom? That’s more problematic for our protagonist.
Ethan’s non-FDA-approved cancer meds (injected from the world’s largest syringe) seem to work, but their hallucinogenic side effects incapacitate him at the worst possible moments, leaving him collapsed on wharfs or paralyzed on subway platforms just as the bad guys are making big moves. Seems like a silly plot device until Viva explains that elevated blood pressure (foot chase, fist fight, etc.) will trigger a reaction. She suggests taking the edge off with vodka, inspiring more jokes.
Impressed by Ethan’s efforts with their daughter, Tina softens to her grizzled retiree husband. Zooey gets cozy enough to ask the questions any confused divorcee kid might, like “Why did you leave us?” “Was it me?” “Don’t you love mom?” and “Do you have have another family?” Ethan strikes a healthy balance with the ladies in his life just as he tightens the noose on the evasive Wolf. Predictably, his personal and professional lives become inextricably tangled during the climax—but the film mercifully avoids cliché “I’ve got your daughter now” standoffs.
The dynamic between Costner and Steinfeld is so effective that one wonders if any other actor combo could’ve pulled it off. No newbie when it comes to portraying “everyman” heroes onscreen, Costner sells both his sickly, razor-stubbled agent and repentant father with practiced ease. Steinfeld—who dazzled in 2010’s TRUE GRIT remake—imbues Zooey with sass and (as needed) palpable vulnerability, and a couple “just us” moments between her young lady-in-transition and Costner’s wanna-do-right dad are downright touching.
McG loads 3 DAYS with enough muzzle flashes and fisticuffs to sate spy buffs searching for the next TRANSPORTER or BOURNE IDENTITY. But its strength derives not from punches and pistol-whips, but from its willingness to spotlight a dying agent’s restored humanity—and then milk it for laughs. Naysayers will accuse the sight-gags (the ever-present purple bicycle, the high-fiving toddler, and Viva’s petty remarks on goatees and mustaches) of diluting the adrenaline. But without the levity, we’d be stuck with another UNKNOWN, HAYWIRE, or THE AMERICAN. All competent capers, to be sure, but relatively humorless affairs populated by automaton agents with whom we never truly identify. We get fathers and daughters. We get hot cocoa and “real” football—even if we’re talking Steelers (Costner compensates with next month’s DRAFT DAY, wherein he’s the Browns GM).
Apparently, McG and Besson get that folks might be looking for something different, and deliver with this surprisingly heartwarming “one last mission” movie.
Nielsen is delightful, as are the driver and accountant. Heard—who seems to be channeling Scarlett Johansen’s Black Widow for her vampy young operative—is the only weak link. 2 ½ out of 4 stars