12 Big Questions Left Unanswered By ‘3 Days to Kill’

By  · Published on February 22nd, 2014

One of the first things answered in 3 Days to Kill is that this isn’t in fact a Taken retread. Maybe it’s a parody of the Liam Neeson-starring action movie – self-parody given that both movies are written and produced by Luc Besson – but the tone is surprisingly closer to the delectably cartoonish hitman movie Shoot ’Em Up mixed with the frustratingly dumb fourth and fifth Die Hard installments. With bits of The Visitor thrown in for pretty much no reason at all. It is a bizarrely stylish yet broadly comic pulp thriller more interested in the familiar trope of an absent father trying to reconnect with his estranged teenage daughter than the spy plot it’s primarily sold on.

In playing with genre and narrative expectations the movie becomes extremely silly, maybe intentionally so, but also filled with plot holes and unanswered questions – also maybe intentionally without concern. If Besson does mean to make fun of what he’s been doing with the Taken franchise (and maybe some of his early success with action heroines) the result is quite cheeky but still rather unmemorable considering we’ll still always favor Neeson and his very particular set of skills to Kevin Costner and his overly non-particular talent as the best worst (or worst best) cleaner for the CIA.

This may be the kind of movie that doesn’t warrant going over unanswered questions, especially if the filmmakers meant for little thinking on their or our part at all, but below I’ve highlighted some things I’m been wondering about since the credits started rolling.

Is Ethan Renner a Valued Asset of the CIA or Really the Worst Spy They Have?

We’re introduced to Costner’s character just after he has quickly taken out a room full of bad guys, apparently very good at his job as a killing machine for the CIA. And when that mission goes terribly wrong because of an idiotic case of undercover work on the part of another spy, he’s the one that would have remedied the whole situation if only his brain cancer didn’t have such bad timing. Later we find out that he wasn’t immediately offered an experimental but potentially life-saving drug for his lifetime of dedicated (marriage-ruining) service because he wasn’t deemed a good enough agent to keep alive, and he’s told he was never one of the “top shelf.” That just tells us that he wasn’t a great spy, though, in spite of what it looked like. Whether or not he’s the worst ever will be part of further inquiry into his tactics in a moment.

If He’s Not That Great, Why Is He Compelled Back For One Last Job?

Apparently the CIA changes its mind about that expensive experimental brain cancer cure after deciding that Ethan is the only man for the job of taking out a villain called The Wolf (Richard Sammel). Because he may have unknowingly seen him during that last mission. But ultimately it doesn’t matter whether he had seen the guy or not since anyone interrogating his associates and then following another villain called The Albino (Tomas Lemarquis) around Paris would have gotten him just the same. In fact, it’s probably a worse idea to have a guy who’d been seen and therefore made previously by The Albino. Clearly that didn’t work for the now headless agent back in Belgrade thanks to her being easily recognized. And did anyone in Langley really think it’d be a good idea to be administering this unpredictable cure, which causes hallucinations only mended by heavy drinking, to a man on such an important solo operation? The movie should have given Ethan a mission that nobody else would take on because it was too risky, due to his having little else to lose what with his terminal disease.

Did Ethan Really Need to Make a Phone Call to His Daughter in the Middle of a Mission?

Birthdays are short, but they do last 24 hours, and Ethan could have called his daughter on hers during any one of those hours besides the one smack in the middle of a very serious operation. But clearly he has some kind of OCD that means he has to do it as soon as his phone has reminded him of the occasion. First he’s dumb enough to have to be told not to use his cellphone to make the call right then and there. Then, what, is he not privy to a credit card that would allow him to dial without needing change? Or maybe an untraceable calling card that’s good for when on spy missions? Could he even make a connection from Serbia to France on a bit of coinage anyway? Yeah, this is the least important question there is, and clearly it was just for putting Ethan in a John McClane sort of position for a moment and also to set up a prop that would come back later.

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How Did Ethan Know and Why Did He Trust That Vivi Was CIA?

I’m not sure how real spies do it, but I figure when one agent is confronted randomly in public by another and given some abnormal mission that there should be some sort of way of confirming the latter is on the same team. Maybe there was some exchange of this sort that we’re not shown, and maybe that was meant to make us wonder if Vivi (Amber Heard) is actually on the right team (she is often photographed in such a way that implies she’s a femme fatale), but it’s just another scenario that made Ethan appear to be terrible at his profession.

Why Doesn’t Ethan Silence His Cellphone While Working?

The crowd I saw 3 Days to Kill with roared with laughter every single time Ethan’s phone would suddenly blare Icona Pop’s “I Love It,” the ringtone specific to calls from his daughter, Zoe (Hailee Steinfeld). That was, obviously, its point. But the comic relief phone call that we’ve seen enough already in movies, just recently notably in Thor: The Dark World, is overdone here to the point that the continued laughter surprisingly never subsided. This is probably because the whole thing is increasingly more about how ridiculous it is that Ethan still hasn’t silenced the phone even after it’s rung in numerous inconvenient moments than the fact that he’s getting a personal call while he’s trying to torture someone. I guess the answer here is that Besson and company don’t care, they love it. Also, it should be pointed out that the crowd I saw the movie with include a woman explaining to her friends that Hailee Steinfeld is Jesse Eisenberg’s sister.

Why Does Ethan Make Such a Scene All the Time?

Spies are supposed to be clean, stealthy, definitely not very public in their actions if they can help it. So why does Ethan do everything so out in the open and loud and messily? He’s doing very violent things in front of children and other civilians at a crowded intersection, he shows his gun a lot and even shoots a bouncer in the foot when he’s denied entry into a club. He leaves red flags everywhere that he’s the worst spy of all time, just to reiterate what so many of these questions add up to. He is so much more of the cowboy John McClane type, doing more damage than should be allowed as if he’s had no training in tact and protocol to properly hold the professional position he has.

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Why Does The Wolf Make Such a Scene at His Partner’s Home?

Never mind the convenience of having 3 Days to Kill climax with Ethan attending a party coincidentally also attended by The Wolf. We can see that happening, as Paris is such a small town. But in most spy movies, this would be the kind of out in the open space where the hero and villain get a nice expository conversation going. It’d be a scene of tension but no action. Here, though, The Wolf has his men start blasting up the place, regardless of the fact that it’s a party at his partner’s home (I think it’s his home, or it could just a rented hall, it doesn’t matter) for that person’s son and maybe he wouldn’t want to come off as a maniacal murderer in this place and situation in front of all these people. They’re just as sloppy and conspicuous as their adversary, and it’s astonishingly unbelievable.

Why Didn’t The Wolf Just Kill Ethan Before?

Before the party scene Ethan chases The Albino and The Wolf into a Metro station and is nearly decapitated by the former villain while the latter keeps saying to just kill him already. We assume The Wolf just doesn’t get his own hands dirty with such things as murder. And then the train arrives, The Albino is offed by Ethan and it’s seemingly too late for The Wolf to get the job done because of all the people around. Yet, as it turns out, we come to see that The Wolf doesn’t really care about being inconspicuous.

Why Didn’t Vivi Just Do the Whole Mission Herself?

In two situations, including the final killing of the big bad of the movie, Vivi does what Ethan can not do, hit-wise. We’re reminded especially in that latter scene the question we have of why Ethan is even necessary. Why couldn’t she just do everything herself? Unlike Ethan, she is top shelf, and it’s likely that she’s a better agent when it comes to looking whatever part the job calls for. Oh, and she isn’t in the middle of trying to reconcile with his wife (Connie Nielsen) and daughter nor does she have debilitating brain cancer or crippling side effects of that drug that comes in the cartoonishly large syringes.

Where Is Zoe’s Boyfriend When She’s Nearly Raped at the Spider Club?

Although this is never answered either, I think it’s clear that there is no Karina or Katrina or whatever Zoe’s lab partner’s name is supposed to be. She’s just making up stories in order to be with her boyfriend. Or is she just going out by herself? No, we saw that she was invited out, at least to the tattoo joint for pre-gaming fun (and maybe a tat?). Hugh (Jonas Bloquet), seems like a pretty swell chap, not the sort to get his young girlfriend in trouble by having her sneak out and go drinking at an apparently unsafe establishment where women can be easily gang raped in the men’s room. And even later says he’s not into raves. Plus if he had been the person Zoe went to the club with, where was he when that near-rape took place? We never find out who she was there with or why she seems so blasé about what should have been a very traumatizing experience for a girl.

Do Squatters in Paris Really Have Such Claim Over Apartments They’ve Taken Over?

This isn’t a plot hole sort of unanswered question. I guess it’s not really even an unanswered question asked by the movie. But here’s the answer: it is in fact the law in France that if squatters make it past two days in a spot they’ve occupied then they can not be removed by the owner except through a lengthy suit. So there truly is nothing Ethan can do when he finds that his little-used Paris apartment has been taken over by a family of immigrants. The real question is why is this subplot in the movie and how does it fit? It doesn’t quite, but Besson is likely just throwing it in as a local in joke to satirize the ridiculous law by showing how it affects a man who needs to use his home for interrogations – not that any good spy would in fact use his own home for such matters.

Ethan Renner Is a False Identity, Right?

Thanks to FSR’s Kate Erbland for pointing out (on another site) that Costner’s character’s name is a combination of Ethan Hunt – Tom Cruise’s role in the Mission: Impossible movies – and Jeremy Renner – who co-stars in Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol. That only adds to the fact that Besson (yes, I consider him the real author of the movie, definitely more than director McG) intends this partly as a spoof of those and other spy movies, including his own. But in the diegetic context of the movie it’s still just so on the nose. I want to believe that it’s, within the story, a secret identity chosen by the worst CIA agent of all time after he’s seen that fourth M:I installment. Never mind that his wife and daughter also have the last name Renner.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.