Thursday, February 20, 2014

Review: "3 Days to Kill"

"Is Dad a badass?"
"He's done some things, yes."

"3 Days to Kill" is an odd flick, but not an un-entertaining one. On its face it looks like another one of these action-thrillers where an older assassin/spy proves he's still got it by mowing through an entire crowd of younger hit men -- by association also showing that the aging movie star portraying him still has some juice, too.

Liam Neeson relaunched his career this way, and now there are so many knockoffs it's practically become its own genre: Geezer Badassery.

But one thing joining all these films is their relentless seriousness and bravado, usually culminating in some scene where the protagonist makes a stern declaration about how he's such a force to be reckoned with, and you better not mess with him. (Predictably, the baddies never heed this advice, otherwise these movies would all end at the 20-minute mark.)

Kevin Costner doesn't do any of that in "3 Days to Kill." Like many of the other characters he's played, Ethan Renner is loose, easygoing and doesn't take himself too seriously. He's grim when his work requires him to be, but his default mode is a joshing sort of self-deprecating charm.

For instance, other characters in the movie repeatedly pester him about his casual dress, since everyone knows CIA assassins and their ilk are supposed to wear skinny black suits, instead of the slouchy chinos-and-bomber-jacket ensemble Ethan prefers. Heck, he doesn't even shave much, and mostly appears to be just going through the motions until retirement.

Of course, Ethan is dying from brain cancer, which has gotten into his lungs and caused a nasty cough, not to mention debilitating woozy spells that are kind of a hindrance when your trade involves people shooting at you. After his latest job goes bad, he's cut loose from the CIA with a tiny pension and barely a fare-thee-well.

That's a pretty dour setup for a movie. But director McG and screenwriters Luc Besson and Adi Hasak defy expectations by making the rest of the movie funny, jazzy and even kind of goofy. "3 Days to Kill" is essentially the comedy version of "Taken."

Ethan's goal with his few remaining months is to reconnect with the wife and daughter he abandoned so many years ago. But his daughter Zooey (Hailee Steinfeld) is lippy and combative, and has mastered that teen skill of humiliating their parents through sheer exasperatedness at their uncoolness. Her mother, Christine (Connie Nielsen), wants nothing to do with Ethan, and soon departs their Paris home for a business trip.

Then Vivi shows up. A young boss at the CIA played by Amber Heard, Vivi is a femme fatale who always appears in a different stunning outfit and new hairdo. She claims to have an experimental cure that could save Ethan or at least extend his life, which she's willing to share if he'll hunt down a mysterious arms dealer named The Wolf (Richard Sammel) for her -- which was the same job that blew up in Ethan's face.

Costner and Heard have a fun, antagonistic byplay, with her the brainy manipulator and him the old-school operator whose usefulness is fleeting. It's clear he halfway suspects the miracle juice she pumps into his arm his bogus, but he figures he doesn't have much to lose. She keeps coming on to him, though more as a power move than real seduction.

The running joke of the story is that Ethan's assassination mission keeps getting interrupted by the necessities of his return to a semblance of normal life. Zooey calls him on the phone, interrupting his interrogation of various lowlifes. It's hard to make a guy think you'll torture him to death if you're also asking him for pasta sauce recipes.

One of these is Marc Andréoni as a Middle Eastern wheel man for The Wolf. Ethan keeps kidnapping him and sticking him in the trunk of his car, but in between punches solicits his advice as a fellow father of teenage girls. It almost becomes a Laurel and Hardy routine.

Ethan also returns to find his apartment occupied by a large family of African squatters, who welcome him with open arms because they know archaic French laws won't allow them to be evicted. The deadly master assassin finds himself powerless at the hands of their warm invitations and smiles, and ends up enlisting the youngest son as his errand boy.

Rounding out the cast is Tómas Lemarquis as The Albino, the chief henchman of The Wolf. You know the villains are nefarious when they go by declarative titles instead of names. Do their close friends call them "The"?

Speaking of idiot nicknames, McG -- who insists on going by his frat-boy moniker instead of his given name, Joseph McGinty Nichol -- delivers crisp action scenes with a lot of spatial integrity, so that we understand where everyone is and what they're doing. Even the hand-to-hand combat doesn't devolve into a flurry if hyper-fast edits the eye can't track, which seems to be the norm these days.

I especially liked the sound design for the film. Gunfire is accompanied by deep staccato bursts, like a pile driver thudding into concrete. You can feel the vibration in your bones. Though, in grand action movie tradition, Ethan's gun clip appears to contain dozens of bullets.

The juxtaposition of these heart-gripping shootouts with the light, funny parts of the movie works better than you'd think. Ethan is a guy whom death surrounds like a magnetic field, yet this movie isn't about him riding a roller coaster into the grave. He regards killing as neither repellent or intoxicating, but simply part and parcel of the profession he's chosen.

The irony is now that he wants to leave that life behind, he must wallow in its excesses to obtain a shot at something more. The filmmakers opt to emphasize the ridiculousness of his situation rather than milk it for cheap thrills and quips after the bad guys have bought it.

Just shy of 60, Kevin Costner is still much the same performer as he was when he broke out a quarter-century past. His face is seamed and jowly now, but he retains that ornery twinkle and understated comedic timing. Even though "3 Days to Kill" chooses a very different route from similar films, it still accomplishes its task of proving its star has what it takes.

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