You might look at the advertising for 3 Days to Kill and assume that Kevin Costner is trying to pull a Liam Neeson, making a late career move into ass-kicking Euro-pudding territory. There’s probably some truth to that — 3 Days was written and produced by French action impresario Luc Besson, who was also behind Neeson’s Taken and presumably hopes for some similar magic here. But this new film, directed by McG (of Charlie’s Angels, uh, fame), feels at once like a lot more, and not quite enough. Taken effectively reinvented the soft-eyed, sensitive Neeson’s career by casting him against type, putting him in a series of tough, no-nonsense action fantasies. But Costner rarely does no-nonsense; Costner usually overloads. And so, 3 Days is sort of the anti-Taken: a comic-tragic-sentimental genre hodgepodge that wants to make you feel all the feelings amid all that action spectacle. It doesn’t entirely deliver, but at times you can’t help but admire its strangeness.
Costner is Ethan Renner, a veteran Secret Service “lifer” whom we first meet as he botches a big nuclear arms bust in Belgrade thanks to a nagging cold and an ill-timed birthday call to his estranged daughter. (Funny!) After he collapses on the job, however, he’s informed that the cold is not a cold at all but cancer, and that he basically has three months to live. (Cancer! Not funny!) So, Ethan retires and heads back to Paris, his former base, to try to reconnect with his teenage daughter Zoey (True Grit’s Hailee Steinfeld) and make amends with his ex-wife (Connie Nielsen). While there, he also discovers that his own apartment has been taken over by a family of Malian squatters and, under French law, he can’t kick them out in winter.
Inevitably, the Service pulls our hero back in, thanks to ambitious, beautiful young agent Vivi Delay (Amber Heard), who is still after the Wolf (Richard Sammel), the mysterious arms dealer Ethan failed to nab in Belgrade. Vivi needs Ethan because he’s the only person who’s managed to glimpse the Wolf. To entice him, she offers an experimental remedy that could help cure his cancer. And so, Ethan has to go back to living his double life, this time trying to spend quality time with Zoey while also clandestinely disposing of baddies in exchange for shots of his cancer cure. Oh, also: The medicine sometimes makes him have strobing weirdo flashback blackouts, and the only way to stop those is to guzzle some vodka. (You’d think that a resourceful guy like him would at this point start carrying around a flask of vodka — but, well, you’d be wrong.)
This intensely silly story veers oddly between broad cultural comedy (Ethan vs. the Malians, Ethan vs. a Middle Eastern bagman who works for the Wolf, Ethan vs. Zoey’s French boyfriend), daddy-daughter sentiment (Ethan teaches Zoey to ride a bike and to dance, Ethan watches as the daughter of the Malian family gives birth) and elaborate action high jinks (one car chase in particular, with a the zooming vehicles weaving in and out of traffic in wide shots, is rather effective).
And it all might have worked, had Besson himself, or some variation of the director he used to be, been at the helm. This fluidity of emotional range was actually his forte back in the days of masterworks like Leon (The Professional) and La Femme Nikita. Back then, his style overpowered everything else — flattening everything into a colorful fantasia of emotions, laughs, and thrills, held together with elaborate tracking shots, thick atmosphere, inventive editing, and Eric Serra’s insistent music. McG is also a stylist, but a less distinctive one. No two sequences in this film feel like they came from the same mind, whipsawing the viewer back and forth between emotional extremes.
A shame, too, because there’s potentially good stuff here: Costner, a likable actor whose Achilles' heel in the past has been a propensity for self-importance, handles the comedy well. The film also presents some intriguing ideas. For example, one senses uncomfortable similarities between Vivi and Zoey — they never meet, but their constant hairstyle changes seem cosmically aligned — almost as if the adult female agent might be a projection in Ethan’s mind of his own daughter’s future. But the idea, like so much else in this film, just kind of gets dropped.
In McG’s hands, 3 Days to Kill rarely coheres. A deft, tightly staged hotel raid in the opening scenes gives way to weirdly drippy sentimentality when Ethan finds out he’s sick, which gives way to goofy, shrill humor when he discovers the Malian family in his apartment. If the story itself weren’t so all over the place, that kind of tonal variation might have worked to give it shape and shading. But this type of material needs a uniter, not a divider — someone to make it feel all of a piece, not a journeyman to give it context-free, canned pizazz.