In the new movie 3 Days to Kill, Paris is full of thugs for hire with bald heads and dark suits, and the last thing they want to see - in many cases the last thing they do see - is Kevin Costner, unshaven and in faded jeans, shuffling down the hallway in their direction.
Sometimes these tough guys make fun of the fact that Costner’s character, Ethan Renner, is American, calling him “cowboy” and other hilarious names. The deeper joke, perhaps unintentional, is that Ethan looks more French than most of the Parisians he encounters. With his loosely tied scarf and graying stubble, his sunglasses and his world-weary demeanor, he could easily pass for a philosophy professor or the leader of a Serge Gainsbourg tribute band.
If he spoke any French, that is.
But Ethan is a true-blue CIA superassassin, and 3 Days to Kill is un film de McG (mak-ZHAY) from the atelier of Luc Besson, a noted practitioner of le cinéma de l’absurde who serves this project as a screenwriter and producer. The idea seems to have been to explore how little sense a movie could make, and how little that could matter, and also to allow Costner to indulge in some good-natured sadism and a bit of middle-aged sentimentality.
There is a lot of violence, but very few hard feelings, except between Ethan and his teenage daughter, Zooey (Hailee Steinfeld), who lives in Paris with her mother, Christine (Connie Nielsen), Ethan’s ex-wife.
There is a villain, too - a pair of them, actually, vaguely Germanic arms dealers known as the Wolf (Richard Sammel) and the Albino (Tómas Lemarquis) - but they are among the most irrelevant bad guys in the history of movies. Costner’s real nemesis is Liam Neeson, who has been the go-to globe-hopping wintertime action dad at least since Taken. (He’ll be back next week with Non-Stop).
3 Days to Kill serves notice (as the latest, dreadful Die Hard sequel did last year) that there’s a new angry papa in town and offers a slight twist on the formula. Rather than placing the daughter in peril, it forces the protagonist to juggle parental responsibilities and professional duties. So Ethan will often be interrupted - say in the middle of torturing one of the Wolf’s associates with duct tape and a car battery - by the perky ringtone signaling that Zooey needs something.
Ethan is making up for lost time and racing with the clock. Apparently, his work messed up his marriage, and now he finds himself back in Paris with a terminal illness. Luckily, his boss - a U.S.-taxpayer-supported femme fatale named Vivi (Amber Heard), who has an impressive collection of fast cars, high-heeled shoes and wigs - has access to an experimental treatment.
As long as Ethan keeps up with his assignments, she’ll be waiting with a giant syringe in an elegant velvet-lined case.
By any reasonable standard, 3 Days to Kill is a terrible movie: incoherent, crudely brutal, dumbly retrograde in its geo- and gender politics. But it is also, as much because of as in spite of these failings, kind of fun. Costner does nothing he hasn’t done before: He slips into the gruff cynic-with-a-heart-of-gold persona that has been his default setting at least since “Bull Durham” and figures that will be enough.
It almost is. There is nothing remotely believable about Ethan - as a father, an expatriate or, goodness knows, an agent of U.S. policy - and yet when he studies the grooves on a vinyl phonograph record, or gives his daughter a belated bike-riding or just-in-time-for-prom dance lesson, or beats up the creeps who are assaulting her in the bathroom of a rave club, you may feel the stirrings of a familiar affection. This is a movie star, and even in a movie as ridiculous as this one that still counts for something.