The trailers and credit list for 3 Days to Kill might lead you to believe it’s just another Taken-riffing tale of an American on the warpath in Europe, just with an actual American this time. You’d be right. It’s a tired action vehicle for an equally exhausted-looking star, one that’s still big enough to save the film from VOD obscurity. But under the manufactured surface is a different beast entirely, a film that piles on so many wrongs, that the sum total turns out to be a warped kind of right.
The Schrödinger’s cat of action movies, 3 Days to Kill exists in two different states at the same time: in one, it’s a potboiler mush of bland spy action that works the same Shootout/Car Chase/Fistfight three-step you’ve seen performed dozens of times before. In the other though, 3 Days to Kill is a bafflingly earnest family dramedy that takes the undercurrents of paranoid paternalism found in Taken-esque, World’s Dad-liest Spy action movies, and launches them to new heights. And it’s got Kevin Costner riding around on a magic purple bicycle for a good half of it, all of which is to say that 3 Days to Kill is perhaps the most shockingly entertaining, quietly insane action movie to come along in years.
Not exactly what you’d expect, given that we’re talking about a film directed by McG. His best film, the man-baiting gridiron weepie We Are Marshall, doesn’t make for much a high water mark when surrounded by not one, but two Charlie’s Angels films, 2012’s bloody awful valentine, This Mean War, and a Terminator so bad it nearly killed the franchise instead of just John Conner. He’s not the first name that comes to mind when you think old school, meat ‘n potatoes action filmmaking, and his confectioner style would seem to mix with writer Luc Besson’s about as well as cotton candy and red wine. Sure enough, the film opens with the usual cliches of dirty bomb-dealing terrorists and botched C.I.A. assassinations, all culminating in the agency’s best asset, Ethan Renner, retiring from the thrill-a-minute life of espionage for good.
Not by choice, of course. As played by Kevin Costner, the epitome of midland American masculinity, Ethan is every bit the badass alpha-male superspy you’d expect from a guy whose name evokes characters and actors known for being badass alpha-male superspies. Introduced in a room full of dead bodies, Ethan’s wry sense of humor and requisite estranged family are established early, so as to separate this paragon of covert justice from a mere sociopath. No man or woman has stopped Ethan from completing a mission yet, but a terminal medical diagnosis gives Ethan mere months to tend to his affairs, both as an operative trying to fit back into a civilian’s shoes, and a father trying to salvage a broken family.
Now, this is where 3 Days to Kill goes a little bit gaga. Usually, such a setup would background the protagonists’ familial struggles while the hero is pulled back into the life for One Last Job, eventually circling back to the personal baggage once saving the world from nuclear destruction conveniently also means restoring the perfect nuclear family. 3 Days to Kill, on the other hand, flips the script from its opening shootout onward, following Ethan with utter sincerity as he returns to Paris with plans to reconnect with his not-quite ex-wife (Connie Nielsen), and despondent teenage daughter, Zoey (Hailee Steinfeld).
This is territory that’s not in the established wheelhouses of either McG or Besson, so grafted on is the film’s real B-story, which has Ethan knocking off a list of government targets in order to get his hands on an experimental drug that might extend his life. Bad news for adrenaline-junkies: McG’s direction is as uninspired as Besson’s setpieces, offering a bloody but bloodless run-through of your usual action movie beats, just in the cobblestone jungle of Paris instead of New York or L.A..
Amber Heard, who plays Ethan’s sultry handler, Vivi, initially seems to be the only one in on the joke of 3 Days to Kills’ B-movie side, vamping it up to 11 in an attempt to get blood from the stoic stone-face that Costner gives her to play off of. She’s a lively bright spot in the film’s slow opening act, but that’s because the film is slow to reveal what it’s really up to. The longer 3 Days to Kills goes, the more its by-the-numbers stories of fatherly redemption and fatherly badassery start to synergize with one another, picking up a special kind of steam that morphs what should be a merely bad picture, into a so-bad-it’s-good treatise on modern masculinity and fatherhood that plays like a Reagan-era meathead flick made for post-9/11 audiences.
While This Means War sugarcoated a surveillance state to the point of just being a natural progression of Facebook creeping, 3 Days to Kill manages to up the ante, boiling down the War on Terror to a sitcom-worthy tale of Daddy comically misunderstanding the kids today, but proving he knows what’s best for them. As you can imagine, this makes 3 Days to Kill something of a tonal fruit salad, bouncing between moments of grim self-seriousness, and broad gags, often within the same scene. A running joke has Ethan swapping fatherly advice with a Parisian businessman connected to a terrorist network, usually while holding the guy prisoner, or just plain torturing him. When it comes to foreign policy, Ethan’s attitudes toward Europe are what could favorably be referred to as old school, and less favorably described as xenophobic. This goes hand in hand with McG’s whacky comedic sensibilities, allowing for scenes like Ethan forcibly interrogating an Italian target for a spaghetti sauce recipe, or being burdened with a family of Malian squatters, who eventually expose the grizzled lunk’s soft-side by naming their newborn baby girl after him (that’s not a typo: they actually name the girl Ethan).
The absurdity of this all pales in comparison to the Ethan-Zoey pairing, a fever dream of a relationship imagined by the sort of father who would proudly sport a bumper sticker that reads “Dad Against Daughters Dating.” The film shifts between teary-eyed, all-American bonding moments (such as Ethan teaching Zoey to ride a bike, or the two sharing an amusement park ride), with paternal sexual nightmare/revenge fantasy scenarios, like when Ethan heroically saves Zoey from a gang of pawing French boys (complete with Bodyguard-approved body-cradling from Costner!), and a climax that’s most preposterous element isn’t the coincidence that sets it into motion, but how McG makes Ethan’s final shootout look like a race to stop his daughter from being deflowered by her boyfriend.
There’s a stupidity bordering on charm to how completely 3 Days to Kill commits to its throwback understanding of gender politics; Heard swapping wigs and slinky outfits every scene could be cynically called out as audience eye candy, but within the context of the film, Vivi’s lasciviousness is just another roadblock in Ethan’s journey towards ultimate Fatherdom. Sorry, vile temptress, he’s already taken!…but it’s still super cool to know 27 year-old knockouts will go goo-eyed over you even when you’re pushing 60.
Costner sleepwalks through the film as the last good, sane man standing in a world full of wussies and terrorists, but as Vivi notes, the side effects of his life-saving drug include hallucinations. And truly, the skewed world of 3 Days to Kill does make one question the veracity of many scenes. It becomes hard to tell at a point which film influenced it more: Taken, or Mulholland Drive. How else do you explain the purple bicycle Costner has with him through most of the film, always magically popping up out of nowhere, its presence announced by a bell-ringing noise as though it’s actually trying to communicate with Ethan. What other world but a fantasy would have scenes of Heard loading guns in an red-lit warehouse for no reason, or watching a cabaret act of dancers cavorting in nothing but diamond-encrusted motorcycle helmets?
3 Days to Kill will almost certainly disappoint those expecting a solid action movie, but those going in expecting just a bad one will be pleased to find out they got a terrifically bad one instead. What Besson and McG have made is either a work of brilliant satire, or a film so incompetent, it loops around into the realm of experimental genius. Either way, 3 Days to Kill is a deliciously entertaining mess, and for none of the reasons you’d ever expect.
If only every disposable action movie could be as bizarrely entertaining, and secretly insane as 3 Days to Kill is.