To explain how on earth I am giving a positive review to 3 Days to Kill, I must cite the late, great Roger Ebert. He referred to his reviewing style as “relative, not absolute,” meaning that he compared a film to others in its genre and judged it against what it was aiming for – not necessarily what he wanted it to be. This was, I imagine, his way of escaping the prisons of subjectivity and personal taste, but it also meant that he gave Adam Sandler’s remake of The Longest Yard the same number of stars (3) as The Godfather Part II.
Understandably, Ebert was often criticized for this approach, but there are times when it makes perfect sense. I can’t sit here and tell you that 3 Days to Kill is a good movie. The Kevin Coster-starring action flick about an aging CIA assassin who is simultaneously dying of cancer and working his last job is unapologetically sleazy. It panders to the audience’s most base instincts, filling the screen with both excessive, cartoonish violence and mawkish displays of sentimentality. But it also has no delusions of grandeur and, as long as you know what you’re getting yourself into, pretty darn fun.
Costner plays Ethan Renner, a professional badass for his country, who discovers in the opening scenes that he has late-stage cancer and only a few months to live. After being brusquely dismissed by his bosses, he decides to spend his remaining time re-connecting with the wife and daughter he abandoned for his work years earlier, but a fellow agent, Vivi (Amber Heard), offers him a life preserver – and a distraction. She wants Ethan’s help with her mission to dispatch an international seller of nuclear materials known only as The Wolf; in return, she’ll make sure he gets access to an experimental cancer treatment.
It would be difficult to think of a more generic, implausible set-up for an action movie, but it’s no matter. The action plot feels like filler anyway.. The heart of the movie is the Ethan’s attempts to be a father to his estranged daughter Zooey (Haliee Steinfeld). Okay, there is some generic stuff there, too: she starts out with a hard, angsty edge but is soon letting daddy teach her how to ride a bike and learning to dance while standing on his feet.
Are we getting the picture now? 3 Days to Kill borders on self-parody throughout, consistently leaving you guessing just how self-aware it is of its own foibles. For example, I even found myself wondering if the villain’s preferred method of killing – decapitation – was intended as a meta-riff on the film’s own brainlessness.
That’s probably going too far, but watching 3 Days to Kill, you’ll ask yourself a lot of odd questions as you try to figure out how you’re enjoying it so damn much. It’s hilariously funny at times, and the action is well-executed, if not particularly thrilling. But there is no mystery to the film’s success, no secret subtext. Just a filmmaker sticking with what he does best; director McG has a proven track record of sleazy but effective pop art (Charlie’s Angels, Terminator: Salvation, This Means War), but the actors also deserve some credit here. It is hard to imagine the film working with anyone but Costner in the lead role (Harrison Ford, perhaps). A proponent of the old Brando advice – “Just because they say action doesn’t mean you have to do anything” – Costner stands emotionally still and lets the humor and action explode around him. The ever-present twinkle in his eye, letting you know he is in on the joke, certainly helps.
Yet it’s Amber Heard who really has her finger on the pulse of the movie; her character is downright inexplicable. Why is she disguised as a different type of sex kitten each time we see her? What is she doing hanging out in strip clubs that she appears to own? And where did she get this experimental cancer treatment? These questions mercifully go unasked and unanswered. Heard is just hanging out and having fun, which probably makes her the audience’s entry point into the story. That is to say, there are far worse ways to spend your time if you have a couple hours to kill.
My Rating: Put it on Your Queue