Even international spies have trouble balancing work and family life, according to “3 Days to Kill,” the latest lightweight action pic from writer-producer Luc Besson, here forming an unlikely (or perhaps unholy) trinity with director McG and star Kevin Costner. Surely the goal of the resulting tonal mishmash was to reignite Costner’s career a la what happened for Liam Neeson after Besson’s “Taken,” but any possibility of sleeper-hit status has been fatally compromised by watered-down fight scenes and misguided family man dramatics. Three days of decent box office appears the best hope for this Relativity release, likely to continue EuropaCorp’s recent run of non-“Taken” commercial disappointments in the U.S. International prospects look only moderately livelier.
The setup plays as if someone (presumably Besson, who is credited with the story and co-wrote the script with “From Paris With Love” scribe Adi Hasak) decided to graft the central father/daughter relationship from “The Descendants” onto a Eurotrashy action framework. Superstar CIA field agent Ethan Renner (Costner) spends so much time on the job that he’s completely missed watching his daughter, Zooey (Hailee Steinfeld), blossom into a sophisticated teenager. After he’s diagnosed with a fatal illness, Ethan retires and resolves to spend more time with his family in Paris, offering to watch Zooey for a weekend while his estranged wife, Christine (Connie Nielsen), is away. But retirement isn’t so easy for a man of Ethan’s skills, and he’s promptly recruited by the mysterious Vivi (Amber Heard), who needs his help in the hunt for a terrorist mastermind in exchange for experimental drugs that could give Ethan a second lease on life.
The conflict between the finesse Ethan demonstrates in his professional duties and the complete incompetence with which he approaches parenting is meant to be comedic, although the film doesn’t have the light touch of similar spy-family action-laffers like “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” “True Lies” or McG’s own “This Means War.” Instead, “3 Days to Kill” proves surprisingly po-faced about trying to build the bond between Ethan and Zooey, even in the midst of moments as goofy as Dad consoling his daughter on a bad hair day, teaching her to dance or buying her a purple bicycle just because that was her favorite color as a kid. The sentimental approach almost works, thanks to the best efforts of Costner and the naturally spunky Steinfeld, who may have made a respectable pair given better material to work with.
As it is, the lukewarm family dynamics sit awkwardly alongside equally underwhelming action sequences. Recent supporting turns in “Man of Steel” and “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” aside, Costner isn’t generally associated with the action genre — he’s more of a “Waterworld”/”Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” epic-adventure guy — and the rote heroics he undertakes here won’t do much to change that. On multiple occasions, the audience simply witnesses the aftermath of Ethan’s handiwork as repped by bodies lying motionless on the floor. The notable exceptions arrive in a brief but slickly executed one-on-one skirmish in a grocery store’s deli section (complete with resourceful use of the meat grinder and panini press) and a bracingly staged car chase in the middle of a Parisian neighborhood inspired by Claude Lelouch’s “Rendezvous” and John Frankenheimer’s “Ronin.”
That chase makes a lovely pairing with McG’s other standout sequence: a montage of Ethan riding the bike he bought for Zooey through the city streets and parking near the Eiffel Tower. It’s a sweet divertissement for the typically boisterous director, who overall reins in the bombastic giddiness of his “Charlie’s Angels” pictures and abandons the soulless spectacle of “Terminator: Salvation” to make an action film that’s downright restrained by his standards. Unfortunately, in this case the restraint reads as overly safe. “3 Days to Kill” is quite literally bloodless — the fight sequences in “Taken” packed a far more potent punch even with the same PG-13 rating — which seems like a missed opportunity. The juxtaposition of Ethan’s violent work and gentler paternal side might have added some desperately needed intrigue to the banal story.
The filmmakers certainly don’t find any of the intended mystery in Ethan’s fitful encounters with the femme-fatale-ish Vivi, a severely under-realized character who never makes any sense despite Heard’s arduous efforts to vamp it up. Nielsen’s thankless skeptical spouse role is even less significant, while Tomas Lemarquis and Richard Sammel bring nothing beyond menacing visages to their bland terrorist baddies. It’s a running gag that Ethan seeks parenting advice from just about anyone he encounters, which offers decent moments for character actors Eriq Ebouaney as the African paterfamilias in a family squatting in Ethan’s semi-abandoned apartment, and Marc Andreoni as a Middle Eastern limo driver linked to the villains.
Although the film’s tech package is reliably proficient, one would have hoped for more onscreen fireworks from the union of ultra-American McG and Costner with French mainstay Besson. Alas, this European vacation is a time-killer of the most mundane variety.