March 27, 2014 |

Movie Review: 3 Days to Kill

Nothing warms my heart more than a father-daughter film - unless it's a father-daughter film with kick-ass action; which means, 3 DAYS TO KILL is killer! Exhilarating! High energy! High Heart! High Humor! As the second of five films starring Costner to hit theatres this year, 3 DAYS TO KILL finds the perfect blend of Costner's "everyman" sensibility, old school practicality and matter-of-fact humor with the high octane storytelling of director McG based on a script by Luc Besson and Hasak. Not just a string of action upon action sequences, 3 DAYS TO KILL has a solid foundation in its story, creating an emotional connection and dynamic upon which humor and action flow, thanks not only to Costner's performance, but that of Hailee Steinfeld who is the embodiment of generations of teenaged girls caught between growing up, being "daddy's little girl" and pushing the envelope of "what can I get away that dad won't know about."

CIA operative Ethan Renner is at the end of a long road. One of the most successful and effective weapons in the CIA arsenal, Renner is dying. Diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer that has spread to his lungs, his days are numbered and his career over. His one regret though? Being a better agent than he was a father and husband. With little time left, Ethan heads to Paris to reconnect with his now teen-aged daughter Zooey only to find her unforgiving when it comes to her absentee father. Keeping Zooey at arms length her entire life as a means to keep her safe and unaware of her father's dangerous career, Zooey's wall of resistence is virtually impenetrable and breaking through it proves to be more difficult than Ethan's toughest mission. Undeterred, Ethan resolves to connect with his daughter and views a three day "babysitting" while ex-wife Christine is out of town for work as the perfect opportunity to prove himself. After all, how hard can parenting be when compared to saving the world on a daily basis from international terrorists? But there's a wrinkle. Vivi.

Vivi is upper echelon CIA and Ethan's former boss, yet, she also makes her own rules and plays her own game; and the latest game involves an international terrorist named "The Wolf" who needs to be taken out before taking down the world with a geopolitical domino effect. Although Ethan is officially retired, and has promised Christine he's done with "the life", he's the only man with the cunning and skill set to handle the job. Despite initially refusing Vivi's "request" for Ethan's help, she holds one card that might sway him, a card that he can't ignore - access to an experimental treatment that may delay his death or cure him completely, giving him the time and second chance he so desperately wants with Zooey. Of course, the mission is set to go down over the same three day weekend Ethan is taking care of Zooey. For a man who has never been a practicing parent, let alone balancing work and parenting, this weekend juggling both without one interfering with the other could be the death of him.

Kevin Costner has never been better. He is truly at the top of his game. He may worry about the body getting older, a little stiffer, but his acting is pure, rich. He is the master of deadpan self-deprecation of retort that zings you every time thanks to a look, a glance, a hanging of the head. On the whole, his performance both in the recent "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit" and now 3 DAYS TO KILL bodes a maturity and comfort that still carries the glint of boyish exuberance we saw in "Bull Durham" or "Swing Vote", while capturing the deliberateness and purpose of life that he brought to "Dances With Wolves", "Open Range" or "Mr. Brooks". With 3 DAYS TO KILL, together Costner and McG have taken Costner, and by extension the film as a whole, to a new level of excellence. Each upped the other's game and I absolutely love it. In speaking with director McG, he was quick to point out that this is "the best version of Kevin Costner where he can have all that emotion, all that credibility, that special brand of humor that he brings and to have that dimensionalized performance that is decidedly his own. That's what this movie's all about. That's the reason for [it] being."

One of the keys to Costner's performance is that "this is a Kevin Costner film" and as Costner has always done, he is integrally involved, be it from arriving on Day One of shooting knowing the entire script off book to doing as many of his own stunt work as possible, and with 3 DAYS TO KILL, that's a lot of practical physicality from man-on-man fighting to choreographed driving. But for a couple of stunts deemed to risky (including a car chase over the Seine in which Costner could have gone off the bridge and into the river), Kevin Costner is who we see.

An important part of the equation that elevates 3 DAYS TO KILL is Hailee Steinfeld. She is absolute perfection as Zooey and soars in her father-daughter dynamic with Costner. Steinfeld brings her own brand of teen-aged precociousness to Zooey that is both endearing and frustrating (as all teens are) but what sets this performance apart is the growth of the relationship with Ethan. Costner and Steinfeld feed off each other with heartfelt, believable emotion, resonating as true to life and not fabricated for story purposes. Watching the father-daughter relationship grow is priceless. This film could have opened the film on Valentine's Day just based on that!

Amber Heard just commands the screen every time she appears. As Vivi, she is vital, vivid and vivacious in attitude and appearance. She too, has a wonderful icy tete-a-tete playfulness to Costner's Ethan that sizzles as well as drips comedic perfection. As ex-wife Christine, Connie Nielsen brings a level of well-worn comfortableness and ease that is a welcome soothing balance to the father-daughter frustration and saving-the-world action and antics. She and Costner blend like cream in coffee.

Supporting players knock it out of the park, starting with Tomas Lemarquis whom I first noticed in "Errors of the Human Body". Lemarquis oozes "creepy" from every slick shaven pour of his body. As The Albino, one look and you feel the eyes of a cold blooded killer - which with his tailored impeccable Italian suits - is perfection and sets the visual tone for a showdown with the blue jean, work boot clad, messy Ethan. (Notable is that the subtext created by visuals in 3 DAYS TO KILL is some of the best I've seen in awhile.) Marc Andreoni is a hoot and a holler as Mitat, a limousine driver who starts out providing information on The Albino and his boss, kingpin terrorist The Wolf, but then becomes the "father knows best" encyclopedia for Ethan with every crisis he's encountering with Zooey. Andreoni has you in stitches with every word, every movement, capitalizing on physical nuance within the subplot of Mitat being kept alive to keep giving parenting advice. The absurdity actually makes sense and is fuel for comedic fodder.

Joining in the familial and comedic tone of the film is Bruno Ricci as The Wolf's moneyman Guido. Garnering some of the biggest laughs in the film, Ricci steals a scene from Costner while duct-taped on a toilet in a public bathroom, giving spaghetti sauce recipes to Steinfeld's Zooey over the phone.

But it's not just Costner's dynamic and the character structure with adults that makes 3 DAYS TO KILL work, it's the familial structure and the kids within various families that help create the character growth of Ethan, starting with a family of squatters in Ethan's apartment. Head of the family Jules, played with pride and eloquence by Eriq Ebouaney, and Jules' little boy and daughter giving birth to the first grandson, are just more familial prongs that buttress the heart of the film. And I have to say, Costner and kids is a wonderful site to behold, eliciting frustration, warmth and heart.

Described by Costner as "a very scripted film" written by Luc Besson and Adi Hasak, characters are well developed and fleshed out with interconnections solid and complete. The main storylines of fatherhood/parenting/family and espionage/terrorist manhunt not only run concurrent, but are interdependent on one another, with each threaded to the other for a tightly woven structure. The family element plays so strongly thanks to the character of Mitat and his daughters, Jules and his family, as well as Guido and his mama's spaghetti sauce that they not only buttress the Ethan-Zooey thread, but serve as various examples of family. Thanks to strong story construct, it's each of these intersecting sub-plots that help create and develop Ethan. Nice craftsmanship of story not only in the Besson/Hasak script, but in McG's visual execution in finding and maintaining the film's tonal bandwidth. Even the seemingly most minute character is important to not only the structure of Ethan's life, but also to the humor of life. A particularly funny scene involves a kid on a bus reading a comic book, absolutely gleeful watching Ethan on a bicycle wearing a gas mask while his mother was trying to shush him oblivious to what was happening outside the bus window, is so telling as to the parental theme of the film. One of the only unresolved story points is that of Zooey's boyfriend and a climactically explosive party scene.

Besson and Hasak play on life's touchstones to not only tacitly show the absence of Ethan in Zooey's life, but the sentimentality of moments we take for granted - like a dad teaching his daughter or son to ride a bike, calming fatherly words when a daughter's whole life is crashing because of a bad hair day, and of course, dad always finding the time to take a call from his child while he's working. Of course, Ethan is doing all of this while killing bad guys which gives rise to the innate humor of life.

According to McG "the action is decorative. It's ultimately a character driven piece. We're hoping that the defining characteristic of this film is the balance of, certainly action and comedy, but most particularly a dramatic investment in this Ethan character." Bearing that in mind, the action and stunt work is magnificent and the fact that McG opted to do them in-camera and practically as opposed to CGI/VFX is more than worthy of applause. Exciting is that McG was shooting in Paris for the first time, with new stunt people untested to him prior, and working on different street types (notice that cobblestone in one of the big chase sequences) than that in the US, and pulling off some amazing action. So taut and well executed, at first blush I thought that McG had reteamed with stunt coordinator Mic Rodgers or gone with veteran Charlie Picerni, especially with the car chases as Picerni virtually wrote the book on those decades ago. I was amazed to see a completely new set of Paris based stuntmen! Man-on-man fight sequences are also well executed and are a nice blend of old school punching and straight on shooting by Ethan with the bad guys trying to add in some more current martial arts type moves.

Paris is its own character. There is a richness and warmth in the architecture, the layout of streets, closeness of shops, the cobblestone on some of the streets - like that of days gone by, days when family was first. It's an interesting juxtaposition with old school analog Ethan who left his family only to rediscover them in Paris. The images create a palpable sensory feel that is embraceable, but then contrasted with the chrome and glass world of Vivi, The Albino and The Wolf. Production design by Jeremy Cassels and Sebastian Inizen is exemplary with Christine's apartment and particularly Ethan's - chipped peeling aged paint, hidden safe with guns and ammo and tools of the spy trade, low light creating metaphoric shadows for Ethan's life.

As comes as no surprise cinematographer Thierry Arbogast, one of my faves, uses light and lens to create warmth and intimacy while widening out to give us Ethan's perspective of the world only to incrementally come in tighter as the story progresses and Ethan becomes more focused on Zooey. Arbogast also creates some lovely eye-popping imagery in Vivi's club "training sequence", the rave party, the underground Spider club (gorgeously designed and lensed) as well as at the rooftop party thrown by boyfriend Hugh's parents.

Be it three days to kill with his daughter or three days to kill bodies, the double entendre is more than satisfied on multiple levels. Killing time with Zooey, killing bodies and even wanting to kill himself with the frustration of fatherhood, the tongue in cheek title speaks well of the blend of action, warmth and the inherent humor of parenting and family life and finding that balance with work.

A tapestry of life, love and fatherhood, with 3 DAYS TO KILL, McG truly establishes himself as a director who can tell a story that's "dimensionalized filmmaking where it's dramatic, it's funny, it's action packed and it's clicking on all cylinders."

Directed by McG

Written by Luc Besson and Adi Hasak

Cast: Kevin Costner, Hailee Steinfeld, Amber Heard, Connie Nielson

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