3 Days to Kill: Starring Kevin Costner as…Liam Neeson

7 minute read

At 59, Kevin Costner still looks great. Age has given his face a few wrinkles that look like emblems of a life spent outdoors in honorable labor. He walks with the slow grace of an athlete who, long ago, spent some time on the disabled list. Even in his movie prime, in The Untouchables, No Way Out, Bull Durham, Field of Dreams, and his Oscar-winning Dances With Wolves, he projected a soul that was wary and weary. That maturity, that Costnerness, has worn well, perhaps because he was in his thirties before he was anointed a movie star. Unlike Tom Cruise and Johnny Depp, he had no youthful image to chase into middle age. On screen, he was born a grownup. And unlike Brad Pitt and George Clooney, who will play the clever scamp in public, Costner is solid and serious — one of the few modern Hollywood stars without an ounce of irony.

Maintaining a straight face is a big challenge for Costner in 3 Days to Kill, which tries to reconcile the opposites of a Bourne-like spy caper and a daddy-daughter dramedy. The director is McG (Joseph McGinty Nichol) — he did the two Charlie’s Angels films and Terminator: Salvation without leaving any footprints of style — but the real brains behind this peculiar concoction is French writer-producer Luc Besson. In 2008 Besson launched Liam Neeson, then 55, as a late-blooming action star with Taken and its 2012 sequel. No great shakes as cinema, these two inexpensively-made films earned more than $600 million at the worldwide box office. Besson also found autumnal European employment for John Travolta (From Paris With Love) and Robert De Niro (The Family), but Neeson was the prime beneficiary of the producer’s career transfusion. Can Costner also get the Besson bump?

Eh — not likely.

(READ: Corliss’s 1989 cover story on Kevin Costner by subscribing to TIME)

Costner’s Ethan Renner is a government hit man diagnosed with brain cancer — “The CIA thanks you for your service,” the Company doctor brusquely tells him — with only a few months left to live. At least now, back in Paris, he can try to reconcile with his estranged wife Christine (Connie Nielsen) and especially with their teenage daughter Zooey (Hailee Steinfeld), whom he avoided, maybe for her own safety, while in the Agency. Then a mysterious CIA officer, Vivi Delay (Amber Heard), tells Ethan she will give him a new miracle drug to allay his cancer, if he agrees to hunt down and kill a certain Mr. Evil known as The Wolf (Richard Sammel), who sells nuclear weapons to terrorists, and his bodyguard The Albino (Tómas Lemarquis). He’s got three days and, Vivi says, his choice is simple: “Kill or die.”

So far, so familiar. In the first Taken, Neeson was a CIA field agent whose work had wrecked his status as husband and father, and who follows his daughter to Paris when she is abducted by sex-traffickers. Both films also follow the Besson rule of giving the hero at least five adversaries at a time to beat up or gun down. And Costner is no stranger to aging Agency studs: just last month he played one, and with his old easy power, in the Tom Clancy espionage thriller Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit.

(READ: The Costner-Clancy connection in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit)

But Besson and co-scripter Adi Hasak figured to tweak the Taken recipe by making Ethan babysit Zooey over those three days: cook meals, critique her outré hair styles, confer with her school principal, supervise her romance with French classmate Hugh (Jonas Bloquet) and, when she sneaks out to a disco, save her from a gang rape. To assure his availability, Zooey puts her ringtone on his phone — Icona Pop’s “I Love It (I Don’t Care)” — which tends to play just as Ethan is about to maim or slaughter some bad guy. “Can I call you right back, honey?” he all but says. “I’ve got to see a man about a gun.”

(READ: Corliss’s reviews of Taken and Taken 2)

The comedy, such as it is intended, comes from the collision of 21st-century Zooey and the dinosaur Ethan, who loves and plays LPs and VCR tapes and wears faded jeans like, Hugh says, “all you American cowboys.” (Since Costner starred in the Westerns Silverado and Wyatt Earp, and directed Dances With Wolves and Open Range, he probably wouldn’t take the observation as an insult.) In fact, for a guy who’s roamed the world killing bad guys, Ethan is pretty parochial. A Pittsburgh Steelers fan, he calls the NFL game “real football”; he has no use for prissy soccer. And he doesn’t speak French, though he was apparently stationed in Paris and keeps an apartment there. When he returns glumly to his flat after his medical diagnosis, he finds it occupied by some (very friendly) Afro-French squatters. Now he’s got two families to take care of.

While the writers plant little plot turds — the ringtone, a bicycle, a wristwatch — for Ethan to keep stepping in throughout the picture, they also push too hard on the comic conceit of a killer who needs parenting advice from his putative victims: an underworld limo driver (Marc Andréoni) and The Wolf’s Italian accountant (Bruno Ricci). But these scenes are Billy Wilder gold compared with those involving Heard’s preposterous CIA sexpot — a Charlie’s Angel gone glam-punk dominatrix in Miley Cyrus-style image makeover. When Vivi gives Ethan an injection of the supposedly life-extending medicine, she uses a syringe big enough to hold the icing for a royal wedding cake.

(READ: Richard Schickel’s review of the McG Charlie’s Angels movie)

Maybe that’s supposed to be funny, and isn’t. The Ethan-Zooey scenes are supposed to be poignant, and aren’t. O.K., he wants her to be the little girl he remembers, and she wants him to treat her like an adult. But when he asks why she hasn’t ridden the bike he gave her, and she says she doesn’t know how, he snaps, “What kind of girl doesn’t know how to ride a bike?” At that moment, sensing the worst, I promised myself that I would bolt from the theater if Zooey snarled: “The kind of girl who never had a father to teach her how to ride a bike.” Well, she did. And I didn’t. Like Ethan, I had a dirty job to do — he to kill or die, I to watch the rest of the movie. But, honestly, the line is insulting, not so much to Ethan or the audience as to all the mothers the movie thinks are incapable of helping their kids learn to ride on two wheels.

Steinfeld, an Oscar nominee at 14 as Mattie Ross in the Coen brothers’ True Grit, tries her best but would need Amber Heard’s giant syringe to inject plausible life into Zooey. Costner’s best is better. Always able to convey strong and subtle emotions within a narrow range of traditional manliness, he sometimes succeeds in making Ethan a tired hero — almost the Ethan Edwards character played by John Wayne in the great John Ford Western The Searchers — who unaccountably got time- and genre-warped into sitcom-dad dilemmas.

(READ: A 2004 profile of Kevin Costner, American cowboy)

This time, the cowboy’s in a car or on a bike — that bike — speeding down Paris streets in pursuit of nasty hombres, or giving one of them an Anna Karenina moment in a Metro station. If the movie had been content to replicate the Taken formula, and left the fatherhood angle as a subtext, it would be easier to take. Instead, even for Costner admirers, it’s a hard 2 hours to kill.

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