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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Friday, Aug. 29, 2014

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In Movies & TV Reviews

Kevin Costner stars in "3 Days to Kill," now playing.

"3 Days to Kill" is a mess of the most watchable order


"3 Days to Kill" is a film that defies the star rating system. It is, by almost all counts, a bad movie, a bloated dumpster fire of tonal confusion, amateur craftsmanship, subplots turned main plots and vice versa. Yet I was entertained – sometimes even intentionally so. Part two of the 2014 Kevin Costnerssance (not quite as catchy as the McConaissance) is a tremendously mockable mess, but it's a mess that I can almost get behind. Almost.

Summoning all of his laid-back affable everyman-ness, Costner plays Ethan Renner, an aging, sandpaper-voiced CIA "lifer." Think Crash Davis crossbred with Liam Neeson in "Taken." Over the course of a needlessly long opening sequence – one that includes a face-first plummet into blunt exposition and some messily edited action ­– Ethan discovers that he's dying.

Released from the CIA with only a few months to live, Ethan decides to spend his final stretch in France trying to reconnect with his wearied ex-wife (Connie Nielsen) and his distant daughter Zoey, now a disgruntled teenager played by Hailee Steinfeld of "True Grit."

Though he promises Nielsen that his CIA gunman days are over, a seductive agent (Amber Heard, usually a terrible sign for a movie) lures Ethan into the classic One Final Job. He is to track down and kill a notorious terrorist called The Wolf (Richard Sammel, who most will recognize as the Nazi who gets the brunt of the Bear Jew's bat in "Inglourious Basterds"). His reward? An experimental three-step injection treatment that could potentially save his life.

"3 Days to Kill" plays like the submarine the heroes make in "The Lego Movie": a doomed, barely functioning ship made of clunky, disparate parts that struggles to cohere into something that works.

The story comes from Euro-schlock purveyor Luc Besson (also a producer and co-writer with Adi Hasak), who stamps the film with his signature venn diagram of stylish violence and comedy, with a dash of sentimental family values. Early on, however, as with many of Besson's recent productions ("From Paris With Love" and, most recently, "The Family"), the mixture often lands uneasily, with cold brutality and reality sitting side by side with wisecracks and laughs.

As Besson and director McG (the man behind the "Charlie's Angels" movies) try to find a balance on tone, they're also trying to juggle storylines. Juggle is a kind term, however, as it more resembles throwing one ball up in the air for bit, then mindlessly letting that ball fall to the ground while throwing a different ball in the air for a bit before trying to smash the two together.

Around the one-third mark, the screenplay completely abandons the spy stuff for the subplot about Ethan's reconnection with Zoey. And I mean completely. It's as though we landed in an altogether different film, one with an unintentionally amusing homage to "The Bodyguard," Zoey's constantly changing hair and a bike with a phantom bell that rings itself. After spending 45 minutes utterly neglecting the actual main plot, the movie tries to bring things together at the end, but it's laughably contrived.

Yet oddly enough, as "3 Days to Kill" got more and more ridiculous (and as Heard's character became less CIA agent and more Lady Gaga wandering through a film noir), I found myself having more and more fun. McG isn't a terrible action director ("Terminator: Salvation" is explosively satisfying, if not particularly memorable), and I appreciate his use of practical stunts. Even if his visual approach is a bit on the clunky side – glum gritty grey for action mode, color for everything else – it's action that looks real.

After struggling early on, he also stumbles his way into a strange, kind of screwy tone that fits the material well (unlike Besson's "The Family," which got so dark and vicious, it took the air out of the comedy).

Costner helps as well, with his inherent paternal nobility keeping things light and slapstick instead of mean. As a result, he gets embarrassingly good comedic mileage out of kidnapping The Wolf's associates and using and abusing them for reluctant parenting help. There's no reason for a line like, "You're a couple of turds" to work in almost any scenario, but Costner's dry, amused delivery makes it funny.

The question that lingers over "3 Days to Kill," however, is how much of the entertainment is actually the movie's purposeful doing and how much is the audience finding entertainment out of its ineptitude and incompetence. It's a hard question to answer and an even harder one to ignore, especially when a lot of evidence points to the latter.

Despite the efforts of likeable actors like Costner, Steinfeld and Nielsen, the family subplot – and the whole movie for that matter – is cliché to the point of parody. Besson himself marches out all of the genre's most tired tropes, such as the pandering use of European stereotypes and massive action sequences that take place in broad daylight without a cop in sight. Even the "he was wearing a bulletproof vest the whole time, I guess" action movie cliché gets a rare 21st century appearance.

The editing is sloppy, a mess of cutaway shots and unnecessary parallel action that hurts the action scenes and takes the air out of a finale that was already a deflated balloon to begin with thanks to the easily distracted screenplay. Even the basic details got overlooked. There's some distractingly bad ADR dialogue, and when a car gets bashed off a bridge (the main passenger gets away unscathed, obviously), the extras in the background are still clearly just casually strolling by.

Plus, a whole additional 938 words would be needed to go through the plot's ridiculous logic gaffs, like a plan involving balancing a bomb on a shoe … while biking over a cobblestone road. Or Amber Heard's entirely unexplained, uncomfortably sexual leather-clad temptress character. Or that Zoey has a whole scene fretting about a prom that I don't remember ever happening. Or a hilarious late reveal that's only missing the crazed psychotic red flashing from "Kill Bill." Or … well, like I said, there are a lot of them.

Worst of all, it's hard to feel particularly invested in any of the story threads when the movie itself doesn't seem all that interested in sticking with any of them either.

Still, I had fun with "3 Days to Kill." If I ever ran into McG, however, I don't think I'd want to tell him that, likely because a lot of what amused me would probably really embarrass him as a filmmaker. It's the kind of entertainment best enjoyed loudly, late at night with several friends and more than several beers.



Theaters and showtimes for 3 Days to Kill
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