There are moments of 3 Days to Kill that approach action movie nirvana. Kevin Costner dishes out ass-kickings in a manner that still manage to feel, somehow, age appropriate and there are a couple of car chases that, unless you really just don’t dig this sort of thing at all (in which case, why would you be watching a movie like 3 Days to Kill in the first place?), will get your pulse racing. But the Luc Besson penned, McG directed action thriller needs much more than these things to elevate it, and it never really happens.
Kevin Costner is Ethan Renner, a CIA operative on the trail of terrorists, when he discovers that he’s terminally ill. Accepting his fate, Renner is off to Paris to put his affairs in order with his estranged wife (Connie Nielsen) and daughter (Hailee Stanfield), when he meets Vivi, (Amber Heard in a ridiculous series of spy cartoon outfits and wigs straight out of a “Boris and Natasha” bit), the seductive spy who wants him to do one more job for the CIA in exchange for significant payments and an experimental treatment that would prolong his life by years. When a seasoned vet like Renner never once questions any of this beyond a token “let me see the literature” deadpan, the logic of this movie is probably best not pondered upon.
When 3 Days to Kill does what it should, there are thrills to be had. Watching Costner righteously and efficiently beat the absolute crap out of four obnoxious teenage would-be rapists in a bathroom is probably what you bought your ticket for. There are a couple of high speed car chases, but one in particular, involving stuntmen hanging between two speeding vehicles while a gun battle rages around them, is as expertly executed as anything of this kind that you’re likely to see any time soon. As action movies are increasingly intent on destroying as much computer-generated real estate as possible, the stunts on display during this sequence are as refreshing as they are exciting.
But then there’s the forced sentimentality that simply doesn’t fit. The ups and downs of an absent father trying to relate to his moody daughter all feel dropped in from other films in order to liven up what would otherwise be a by-the-numbers thriller. In a moment that would be inexcusable, even in a movie about a dying father who isn’t a CIA killer, Ethan teaches his 16-year-old daughter how to ride a bicycle, complete with a sunset, saccharine piano music, and a Parisian crowd that bursts into applause when she finally masters the task. We also incredulously get the obligatory chat with the estranged wife early on when Ethan tells her the bad news: “I’m dying,” he confesses. “You think this is easy for me?” she responds, not realizing he means it literally. It would take two additional car chases to make up for each of these scenes. And there’s more where that came from.
But as hard as 3 Days to Kill tries to wear its heart on its sleeve, it’s a pretty soulless affair. The heroes aren’t particularly interesting and the villains don’t get nearly enough screentime to generate any real sense of menace. To offset a typically Costnerian “even keel” performance as the film’s hero, you need an Alan Rickman in full Hans Gruber mode (or, at the very least, an Eric Roberts) to give the audience a little malevolent badguy fun. Instead, the most fun 3 Days to Kill ever allows itself to have is by surrounding the big bad with two flunkies (particularly Marc Andreoni), both of whom are probably the most likeable characters in the film.
Really, 3 Days to Kill never seems to understand what kind of movie it’s supposed to be. It never fully commits to the difficulties of the father/daughter situation (although there’s a running gag involving her personal ringtone that is good for a few chuckles), the hero’s terminal illness strikes at such convenient times that it may as well be kryptonite and not cancer, and there’s never really the tantalizing possibility of a macho tearjerker ending (ala Leon). The action sequences are plenty exciting, but there aren’t nearly enough of them, and the climax is so abbreviated, and so utterly devoid of any kind of real danger for Ethan or his family, that I wonder why they even bothered. Not compelling or tense enough to be considered a thriller, and not action-packed enough to satisfy the popcorn crowd, 3 Days to Kill just never really gets moving.