3 Days to Kill (review)

3 Days to Kill (2014) is the latest family-oriented action thriller born from the mind of Luc Besson, the writer behind genre-stagnating movies like Taken and Transporter, and brought to life by the heavy and artless directorial hand of McG (Terminator: Salvation; yes that's his real name). Luc Besson's not a bad writer, but his stories often require something special to elevate them out of mediocrity. Taken was exceptional not because it was a uniquely compelling story but because of Liam Neeson's memorable performance. 3 Days to Kill lacks any of these sort of extenuating circumstances.

The movie follows Ethan Renner (Kevin Costner), a CIA agent diagnosed with cancer and told he has only a few months to live and to put his affairs in order. He decides to try to reconnect with his estranged wife and daughter Zooey (Hailee Steinfeld), whom he promises not to do anymore killing. But then Vivi Delay (Amber Heard) offers him a magical experimental cure in exchange for him doing one more job, and he's forced to juggle family time with assassination time.

The film's biggest weakness is that the story arc at its center carries no emotional weight. It plays like a running list of excuses for the protagonist's poor parenting ability. The central fantasmatic conceit—the element which is supposed to be fun and exciting but not necessarily realistic—is that the main character is a CIA agent, and if we take that out what we're left with is a negligent father who wants to reconnect with his family but keeps getting pulled away by work. "Sorry I couldn't be there for you honey, I had to go shoot some bad guys." Every movie has an emotional core, and here it's an inattentive father being welcomed back into his family in exchange for some fight scenes.

The word that comes to mind with regard to the plot is "contrived". We're told as little as possible about what's going on in order to maximize on every kind of sitcom-like situation you can imagine without having to worry about whether it makes any sense in context. Costner has to drive Zooey to school with a potential informant in the trunk of his car. He interrupts an interrogation to have his victim give a tomato sauce recipe for Zooey to impress her boyfriend. When Zooey goes missing he asks the daughters of one of his enemies if they know where she might be (they do, of course). These are all situations that could work if integrated naturally into the story, but instead we jump from one to the next with none of the nuance or complexity necessary to them to feel organic.

I find that you can generally separate movies into those which arise from a strong desire to tell a story and those which arise from a sort of logical economic calculation. This is why sequels can often be underwhelming: someone decided that we needed another installment in a franchise rather than having a story they needed to tell. 3 Days to Kill feels like the latter, like a sequel to a better movie we never got to see. It comes off as something which is attempting to pander to some sort of naive demographic unity. It's got scenes with Kevin Costner shooting people with guns for the men and scenes with him trying to reconnect with his family for the women. What's not to like? Unfortunately it's all very strained and artificial and lacks the relatable humanity necessary to make either the action or the drama enjoyable.