French filmmaker Luc Besson used to make arty entertainments that came packaged with an element of exploitative sizzle (things like the endlessly remade "La Femme Nikita" and "The Fifth Element," which was like a European comic book version of "Star Wars"). At some point, though, his interest in directing faded, his personal output became sporadic and scattershot, and instead he refashioned himself as a kind of European Roger Corman, co-writing and producing a slew of trashy thrillers that had marginally more sheen and complexity than your average direct-to-cable premiere. "3 Days to Kill" is the latest feature to emerge from the Besson hit factory, and is one of the filmmaker's better productions, mostly because he seems to have found a kindred spirit in director McG, who has overseen a number of junky guilty pleasures himself.
"3 Days to Kill" opens with a clandestine CIA mission that is staged clumsily, with a number of agents in pursuit of villains who were only vaguely set up (they're terrorists, of course, and in possession of some pretty nasty explosives). The operation is led by Ethan Renner (Kevin Costner), a grumbly old fuck who is cocooned inside a wooly pea coat and looking physically taxed, both when firing his gun at an assortment of bad guys and when trying to make a phone call to his young daughter (it's her birthday and he is, of course, missing it). The bad guys escape and Renner collapses. Turns out that he's terminally ill, leaving him only… You guessed it… Very little time to live. Not exactly three days. But close enough.
So instead of continuing on the mission, Renner hightails it back to his crummy apartment in France, which has since been overrun by illegal squatters. In a burst of weird social commentary, the police inform Renner that the squatters are protected under French law and that he's got to deal with it. Instead of try and kill them all, they live peacefully, while he attempts to reconnect with his teenage daughter (Hailee Steinfeld) and his estranged wife (Connie Nielsen). Things, however, are not as easy as they seem.
A mysterious, sexy operative named Vivi (Amber Heard) visits Renner and informs him that she has come into possession of a new, wholly untested experimental drug that could stop his cancer. The rub is that he has to finish the mission that he started before the opening credits. For every bad guy that he summarily exterminates, she will give him a shot of this drug (which is basically a magic serum). If he doesn't agree, then she'll allow him to die. And before he has a chance to warm up to his sullen teenage daughter, at that.
The "magic serum" element of the movie lends "3 Days to Kill" the vibe of John Carpenter's "Escape from New York" (and the "Crank" movies starring Jason Statham), and McG, a stylist capable of much more than he showcases here (or in his last directorial effort, the genuinely miserable Fox action comedy "This Means War"), has some fun with the hallucinogenic effects of the drug. It also means that the movie is split evenly between sequences where Costner is running down bad guys and murdering them horribly, and scenes where the cold blooded killer warm-heartedly teaches his daughter how to ride a bicycle (finally). "True Lies" seems to be the clear template, at least as far as Besson and co-writer Adi Hasak's script is concerned, although there is a whole bunch of Besson's own "Taken" in the mix as well, particularly during a sequence where Costner rescues his young daughter from a potential gang rape situation at a local Parisian nightclub. And for the most part, it works.
McG was responsible for the supremely underrated, visually adventurous "Charlie's Angels" movie and the zeitgeist-capturing Fox drama "The O.C.," and you can feel elements of both in "3 Days to Kill." There are moments which are deliciously cartoony and over-the-top, like when Heard coos to Costner that he needs to wear a suit because, "I like my boys dressed better than the men we kill." And there are a handful of instances when the relationship between Costner and Steinfeld feels genuine, even sincere. You just wish that he would have been able to let loose a little bit more, both in terms of the movie's stylized visuals and the appropriate levels of sex and violence (there was, undoubtedly, a more supercharged European cut that was denied American exhibition because it would have endangered the movie's precious PG-13 rating). With McG more is always more, so to feel him somewhat hedged in by the movie's limited budget and production values is something of a disappointment.
What's not disappointing, however, is getting to watch Costner play in a way that he hasn't in years. It's always great to see the actor pop up, even when it's in meaningless fluff like "Man of Steel" or last month's "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit." Here, though, we are allowed to luxuriate in his presence, and McG is unafraid of filling the frame almost exclusively with Costner's face. You can trace the actor's wrinkles, like spider webs, from behind his ear and around his eyes; for all the trouble he got in during the late nineties for ego-driven projects like "The Postman," he seems completely free nowadays. This is Costner, unadorned. And it's pretty brilliant. "3 Days to Kill" is the perfect project for the actor, because it allows him to showcase his action movie chops while also displaying his penchant for physical comedy, something that he rarely gets to engage with. Yes, he gets to shoot a bunch of people, which is plenty exciting. But the sequence where he intimidates his daughter's French boyfriend is even better.
Ultimately, "3 Days to Kill" doesn't add up to much. But it is fun while it lasts (which, thanks to its unnecessarily lengthy running time, is longer than you'd expect). McG and Besson are perfect collaborators, men finely attuned to what makes throwaway entertainment really pop. They both understand that characterizations, no matter how broad, and peppy action sequences, both utilized for maximum emotional impact, are what really matter, no matter how messy and inelegant they might be. "3 Days to Kill" might not be art, but it's better than most of the overtly violent action fare that litters the multiplexes these days, thanks largely to the fact that its heart is almost as big as its explosions. [B-]