In the French-American thriller 3 Days to Kill, Kevin Costner plays Ethan Renner, a CIA assassin with an unusual burden of life-work balance problems. After he collapses during the take-down of a black-market French arms dealer, he learns he has terminal cancer and decides to spend his remaining months bonding with his wife, Christine (Connie Nielsen) and teenaged daughter, Zoey (Hailee Steinfeld). Then his real troubles begin. Ethan finds his Paris apartment has been illegally occupied by a noisily friendly African family of squatters, and the French bureaucracy being what it is, says he has no choice but to live and let live. When he agrees to look after Zoey for three days while Christine is on a business trip, he gets sucked into another assignment. Another agent, a pouty power flirt named Vivi (Amber Heard, who flounces through the movie in stiletto heels, leather and Spandex ensembles and many wigs), says she will provide him with a life-prolonging experimental drug if he agrees to kill some more nuclear-weapon-dealing bad guys, who have nicknames like The Albino and The Wolf, which proves they need killing.
3 Days to Kill was produced and co-written by Luc Besson, who is a specialist in eye-rolling French action comedies (The Fifth Element, Léon: The Professional) that wink at their own contrivances and clichés. Here, the main compensation is that we get to kill three days in the touristic centre of Paris and spend some time with Costner in his first lead role in a half-dozen years. The 59-year-old actor plays a reassuringly familiar type, a gentlemanly all-American curmudgeon (like a cross between Jimmy Stewart and Gary Cooper), who is forced to conform to social norms but keeps his skill for violence close by. Ethan is referred to as a cowboy by most of the Europeans he meets, despite his grizzled hipster goatee and knotted fashion scarf. To the degree that the film works, it’s because Costner plays the straight man.
The movie is directed by McG, a.k.a. Joseph McGinty Nichol, the producer-director who has made better movies (his first film was Charlie’s Angels), and much worse (the abysmal spy/romance This Means War). Here, McG does a competent job of giving us a Besson movie: The action sequences and gunfights are slick, the comedy is crude with a broad wink, and there’s a chubby Eastern European spy (Marc Andreoni) whom Ethan keeps picking up and torturing for information, though he also asks him for parental advice because his victim has two teenaged daughters.
3 Days to Kill is a comic variation on the Taken movies, which Besson also co-wrote and produced, starring Liam Neeson as a daughter-rescuing spy. With 3 Days, dad is mostly concerned with saving Zoey from predatory boys. The part where Ethan reduces Zoey’s boyfriend to nervous babbling is amusing, and even the nightclub scene when he beats the fromage out of the creeps who are groping Zoey appeals to protective fantasies. But you can’t do anything except shudder at the tone-deaf scene where Ethan teaches his daughter to slow dance to Bread’s Make It With You.
Uncharacteristically, the issue of Ethan’s illness is treated with restraint, even ignored for large stretches of the film, which avoids making 3 Days to Kill a downer, and brings its heroic fantasy in everyday perspective: Dying is easy; raising teenagers is hard.