Friday, February 21, 2014

3 Days to Kill: Silly spy stuff

3 Days to Kill (2014) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rating: PG-13, despite considerable intense violence, profanity and lurid sensuality

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.21.14

In theory, teaming French action filmmaker Luc Besson and American action director Joseph McGinty Nichol — who prefers the nom de guerre “McG” — should produce the perfect cinematic marriage.

Once past her initial hostility, Zoey (Hailee Steinfeld) decides that she likes having her
father, Ethan (Kevin Costner), back in her life. Unfortunately, their fragile bonding
efforts keep getting interrupted by Ethan's demanding boss, with fresh bad guys for
him to find and kill.
The former is a one-man movie machine well known for (among many others) La Femme Nikita, Jason Statham’s Transporter series and Liam Neeson’s Taken series; the latter is perhaps notorious for the two big-screen Charlie’s Angels entries and 2009’s Terminator Salvation.

Assuming your desires extend no further than noisy, attitude-laden eye candy, what could possibly go wrong when these two fellas get together?

Clashing sensibilities, of course.

3 Days to Kill — directed by McG, written by Besson and Adi Hasak — proudly displays its comic book tone right up front, as veteran CIA agent Ethan Renner (Kevin Costner) and a sizable team prepare to capture nasty international terrorists laughably known only as The Albino (Tómas Lemarquis) and The Wolf (Richard Sammel). The operation goes awry, and the baddies get away, much to the annoyance of CIA handler Vivi Delay (Amber Heard), sent by Washington to monitor the situation.

Worse yet, Ethan gets rather bad news while recuperating from injuries sustained during this fiasco: a diagnosis of advanced terminal cancer that’ll kill him in a few months. Not that this will stop any of the action to come; just as Ali MacGraw became more radiantly beautiful, the sicker she got in 1970’s Love Story, ol’ Ethan loses none of his flair for beating up on baddies twice his size and half his age.

Even so, he’s tired and discouraged, and wants to spend his remaining time with his ex-wife, Christine (Connie Nielsen), and long-estranged teenage daughter, Zoey (Hailee Steinfeld), both living in Paris. But catching up on a decade’s worth of missed birthdays and youthful milestones isn’t easy, and Zoey isn’t about to cut him any slack.

On top of which, Vivi rather inexplicably wants Ethan to finish the botched pursuit of The Albino and The Wolf. I say “inexplicably” because Vivi clearly has the resources, the ruthless attitude and the improbable skills necessary to complete the assignment herself, likely in half the time.

As conceived and audaciously played by Heard, Vivi is equal parts Marvel Comics’ Black Widow, Sidney Bristow (from TV’s Alias) and strip club lap dancer. Why waste time with the dying Ethan, who’s obviously — in Vivi’s mind — long past his sell-by date?

Well, because the script says so.

And, so, Vivi “encourages” Ethan into this one final mission, dangling the promise of an experimental drug that could delay his imminent death. Understanding that this could mean more time with his daughter, Ethan reluctantly agrees.

Which, of course, runs counter to the promise he gave Christine, to give up the spy biz.

The resulting blend of action-laden spy craft and family melodrama remains reasonably entertaining much of the time, particularly with respect to Ethan’s personal life. Bad enough that Zoey wants nothing to do with him; he returns to his long-unused Parisian apartment to discover that a large family of squatters has taken up residence ... and it seems French law prevents him from evicting them during the cold winter months.

(That’s not fiction. The right to housing is constitutional in France: Squatters who occupy a space for more than 48 hours cannot be evicted, but must instead be sued by the property owner, which can take months.)

Besides which, the family’s cheerful paternal spokesman (Eriq Ebouaney) explains that his very pregnant daughter is days away from giving birth. Could Ethan be so hard-hearted as to toss these loving folks out onto the street, particularly when the youngest boy takes such an instant shine to him? Of course not.

That sort of droll supporting character detail is classic Besson, as is the Middle Eastern limo driver who, despite being a link to The Wolf, becomes valuable for his understanding of how teenage daughters think and act; and the Italian accountant who cooks The Wolf’s books, while also sharing precise details about his mother’s famed spaghetti sauce, which Zoey needs in order to impress her boyfriend.

Then there’s the matter of the very purple bicycle that Ethan gets for Zoey, which she naturally hates; and the fact that she programs his phone to play a particularly harsh ring tone every time she calls him. This becomes the film’s best and funniest running gag: Every time Ethan’s about to administer another dose of whup-ass, the phone goes off. The baddies smile indulgently and wait patiently, as he answers with a “Honey, can I call you right back?”

All this stuff is quite amusing, and well integrated with the gritty, authentic stunt work that McG prefers to CGI fakery. The hand-to-hand melees are deftly assembled by the film’s fight choreographers and edited by Audrey Simonaud, and the a furious car chase through Parisian streets — inspired by similar sequences in Claude Lelouch’s Rendezvous and John Frankenheimer’s Ronin — is damn impressive.

Unfortunately, the film falls apart every time Heard’s Vivi reappears. Her femme fatale act quickly becomes tiresome, as do her slutty attempts to get Ethan into her pants. Her dangled doses of “the miracle cure” also are irritating, particularly since this so-called wonder drug seems worse than Ethan’s advancing illness. Eventually, we cannot accept the fact that various baddies take such a long time to react to Ethan’s frequent dizzy spells and loss of consciousness.

Even in a script this contrived, that’s one absurd detail too many.

His fainting spells notwithstanding, the attractively scruffy Costner is reasonably persuasive as this world-weary spy. It’s a welcome return to a starring role clearly shaped to his talents, after equally enjoyable supporting roles in Man of Steel and Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. There’s no denying Costner’s easy charm, and he knows precisely how to use his mocking half-smile.

Steinfeld, still making good on the promise she displayed in 2010’s remake of True Grit, deftly blends petulance and vulnerability as the rebellious Zoey. Films of this nature don’t demand much in the way of true dramatic chops, but Steinfeld nonetheless makes Zoey feel reasonably authentic. She also shares some touching father/daughter scenes with Costner, notably when Ethan teaches Zoey how to ride that bicycle, and how to slow-dance.

I’ve already dispensed with Heard, who belongs in a different movie. Nielsen isn’t terribly convincing as Christine, her performance wavering between flat and awkward. Marc Andréoni is a hoot as the aforementioned limo driver, who becomes Ethan’s rather reluctant confidant; the unlikely dynamic here is similar to the relationship Jason Statham’s Frank Martin shares with François Berléand’s French cop, Inspector Tarconi.

Bruno Ricci is similarly amusing as Guido, the nervous accountant with the scrumptious spaghetti sauce recipe. (Truthfully, it sounds delicious; I should have taken notes.)

Such lighter moments aside, this film is filled with violent skirmishes, lethal gunfire and body-mangling crashes and explosions, all of which make a complete mockery of the (supposed) family-friendly PG-13 rating. I mean, come on; one of Ethan’s colleagues, early on, gets decapitated by a descending elevator (The Albino’s handiwork). Granted, the actual impact occurs off-camera, but we still get the ghastly crunch.

Then there’s the matter of Vivi’s carnal tastes, and her fondness for strip clubs.

Comic book sensibilities notwithstanding, this flick deserves an R ... and the fact that the idiots staffing the MPAA’s ratings board let so much violence slide, merely demonstrates anew how unfairly arbitrary their so-called standards can be.

None of which matters, of course, to adults wishing some popcorn thrills. 3 Days to Kill could have been better, given a tighter script and a smoother meeting of the minds between Besson and McG, but it’s still a diverting guilty pleasure.

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