Killing time

Unfortunately, if you saw the trailer, well, your takeaway would be that "3 Days to Kill" was a straight-up, stone cold-killer thriller. Standard, unimaginative fare.

Actually, it's something very different. Surprisingly different.

What will initially attract audiences to the film will be, of course, Kevin Costner, who has been absent from the big screen for some time.

Costner is CIA assassin Ethan Renner, who discovers that he is terminally ill and has mere months to live. And so he returns to Paris, where his ex-wife, Christine (Connie Nielson) and teen daughter, Zooey (Hailee Steinfeld), live. His final wish is to reunite with Zooey and try, if at all possible, to make amends for all those years he was absent when she was growing up, years he spent in "¦ well, pick a country, working for the Company.

Zooey, feeling abandoned, angry, age-appropriately rebellious, is not pleased to see him. Nor is Christine. But as Ethan explains to Christine, he's dying and wants to spend his few remaining weeks with the two of them.

But then things get complicated. Into his life arrives an atypical Company agent, Vivi (Amber Heard), looking more like she belongs on the cover of "Sports Illustrated" than someone schooled in the tradecraft of espionage. She wants Ethan for one more job. He says no. She says she has an experimental drug and will make it available to him, a drug that will likely send him into remission and give him the time he so desperately wants. Ethan says yes.

The assignment: kill an international terrorist and arms dealer, The Wolf, and his henchman, The Albino (clichés extraordinaire). As a teaser, Vivi gives Ethan his first injection.

And so begins the hunt. But know that at every turn — let's say Ethan is torturing The Wolf's accountant, trying to learn the terrorist's location — his phone rings (Zooey has programed a ring-tone from the song, "I Love It (I Don't Care)"). It's Zooey. As an aside, the title of the song is perfect for a 16-year-old. In any case, Ethan is interrupted mid-questioning. Zooey has called because she's cooking dinner that evening and needs a spaghetti sauce recipe. The accountant, hands and feet taped, happens to be Italian. Ethan gives the numbers guy the phone and tells him to give his daughter his best recipe (his mother's). Which he does.

In other words, this is a quasi-comedy and a film about family dysfunction: dad wants desperately to please his daughter, given the circumstances. Her approbation is as important to him as finding The Wolf. Or killing The Albino. The stakes, as a result, just never feel that high. In kind of a good way.

Costner is perfect in the role and seems to be enjoying himself, his world-weary persona dry as day old toast. And the audience quickly discovers that this is not a hardcore thriller with a high body count, but a narrative with comic and familial overtones.

"3 Days to Kill" is not a terrible movie. Actually it's more than OK if you have 11/2; hours to kill, so to speak.

Two other points: There's a McGuffin in the film, meaning an object that turns up repeatedly (recall the Maltese falcon?). In this case, it's a purple bike, one that Ethan teaches Zooey to ride, which turns out to be a really nice scene.

And not to forget that Costner, closing in on 60, has now, apparently, joined the AARP crew (Neeson, Stallone, Schwarzenegger) of actors who are still making movies, such as they are, and ignoring any incentive to move to Florida to play shuffleboard or go gently into that good night while telling screenwriters to include hot young women who will find them irresistible. As if.

The caveat: If you enjoy a wide spectrum of movies, you will enjoy "3 Days to Kill" (a nice play on words, actually). But keep in mind that this is pulp cinema with a tongue planted firmly in its cheek.

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