14 years ago McG successfully transitioned from music videos to film with Charlie’s Angels, but his films that followed varied in quality. For the most part, he’s tagged with the less-than-flattering title of a “hack.” A director only invested in a buck wouldn’t have made We Are Marshall, but there’s no denying he generally aims for a broad audience. Sometimes that means he make the most obvious choices instead of the most inspired, but the same cannot be said for his newest movie, 3 Days to Kill.
Screenwriters Luc Besson and Adi Hasak have finally given McG a well-rounded script to bring to life. 3 Days to Kill is mostly lean, often funny, and its central character, Ethan Renner (Kevin Costner), is a respectable addition to Besson’s long line of bad-asses. Ethan is a top operative ready to quit so he can have more time with his wife (Connie Nielsen) and his estranged daughter, Zoey (Hailee Steinfield). His plans hit a snag though when he discovers he’s dying. The only way he can buy more time is by taking an experimental drug, offered by Vivi Delay (Amber Heard), in exchange for his services. So, yes, this is another “one last job” and father-daughter issues action movie.
The film is a mix of the overly familiar and, while perhaps not new, at least subversive. From the start, the script deviates from Besson’s usual formula, throwing the audience into the movie ten minutes after it’s already started. It shows us Ethan on a mission with, at most, a two minute discussion beforehand with a plainly dressed Vivi – how could a serious agent always dress in chic latex dresses? – about Ethan and his mission. In the opening we learn the tone, that Ethan is highly skilled, and the core dilemma: balancing one’s work and family life. That conflict is genuinely convincing in the movie. The least compelling aspect of Taken were the familial scenes. Whenever Liam Neeson wasn’t in a brawl, the movie suffered for it. That doesn’t apply here as the film finds the balance between the professional (energetic action) and the personal (genuinely decent family drama). Costner is assured on both sides of that coin, but there’s another actor present who almost steals the film out from under him.
Heard finally delivers on all the potential shown in Machete Kills, Father’s Day, Paranoia, The Informers, and Never Back Down. The young actress with an often painful track record lends 3 Days to Kill a substantial burst of energy, reminiscent of Sam Rockwell’s childish villainy from Charlie’s Angels. She’s tasked with spouting a considerable deal of exposition, and she pulls it off. Heard already had the tall order of acting with Costner on top of that, a guy who can overshadow any actor not on their game, so it’s telling that she comes out looking as good as she does here. Her performance anchors the movie in many ways.
It’s refreshing to see an action movie where a female character is this dominant. She calls the shots, the fate of the male lead depends on her, she isn’t in need of saving, and, at one point, does what the male hero cannot. Whether Besson’s intention is to express some sly progressiveness is irrelevant, because, intentional or not, it’s a touch that elevates 3 Days to Kill from another standard Besson-produced picture. There’s more to 3 Days to Kill than the routine action movie, even if there’s not a whole lot there in the first place.
In fact, there’s an even superior cut of this movie calling out under the redundancies. There’s a subplot in this movie that should’ve been cut from day one involving another family in Ethan’s home. It’s an exaggerated French thing that shows Besson’s overly broad native humor getting in the way of an otherwise streamlined narrative. He tries to payoff this subplot with heart, but it’s unearned and takes us away from the main drama. Since there’s already plenty of comedy in the movie, it doesn’t function as comedic relief either. Worst of all, the moral Ethan takes away from this family doesn’t impact the structure or character in any fundamental way.
Ethan’s arc is simple and clean, until the very last shot. Is it meant to be ambiguous? That ending, along with that clunky subplot, are frustrating script choices because they are so fixable and hold 3 Days to Kill back from reaching its full B-movie potential. With that said, plenty is done proficiently both on the page and on the screen. McG’s film is routine in many regards, but when it takes an unexpected detour, whether with an oddball aesthetic choice or Vivi’s control over the narrative, it’s the director’s most entertaining and, to an extent, thoughtful movie yet.
The Upside: Kevin Costner is in fine form; clever set pieces; a handful of stylistic flourishes that give the film a little bit of its own identity; no “old man” jokes at Costner’s expense; the father-daughter scenes work better than they should; progressive for its genre
The Downside: That unfunny, tone deaf, and tangential subplot; Besson’s sense of humor should’ve been reigned in every now and then; that final shot
On The Side: 3 Days to Kill cinematographer Thierry Arbogast has shot all of Luc Besson’s films.