Costner plays Ethan Renner (a character name apparently comprised of those of two of action’s blandest stars), a CIA agent who returns to his Paris home to patch things over with his estranged family. When he arrives back to his pokey flat he finds a large family squatting there, which isn’t that relevant, but worth mentioning for how odd it is. He then discovers he has terminal cancer, and is apprehended by a mysterious CIA agent (from whom he asks no proof of identification), offering him an experimental cure in exchange for doing one last job. The problem is he only has a few days to bond with his daughter, having been absent for five years. She thinks he’s a salesman, so he has to juggle parental engagements with hunting down a killer known only as “The Wolf”. Think True Lies with cancer.
The film opens as we are being told “The Wolf’s number one man, The Albino, will be selling a dirty bomb to the Syrians”, and thus the entire action/thriller aspect of the plot has been set up in the first two minutes. This is all the information we’re ever given about this side of the film, which feels more like a pesky inconvenience to a story of father-daughter bonding. As Ethan is kept in the dark about the killings he is assigned, so are we. We know nothing about the main villains, and they hardly even talk, so we can only care what happens to them insofar as it does or does not lead to Ethan getting the cure and being able to spend more time with his daughter.
Like Léon, this seeks to give a tough guy a human side by having him learn to nurture a young girl, but where Léon‘s misfit pairing of the plucky young Natalie Portman with the cold titular hitman felt quirky but sincere, the relationship in 3 Days to Kill feels more like treading old ground. An action man having to win back his wife and/or daughter is something we’ve seen many times before, and as Ethan’s 16 year old daugher Zooey (Hailee Steinfeld) is extremely annoying and quite badly acted, it never really connects. More like Léon: The Unprofessional. Like what I did there?
Costner is past it, and doesn’t look like he could possibly carry out any of the various ass-kickings in this film, even without cancer. With his voice like Moe Syzlack he struggles through, probably acutely aware of what a disaster he’s involved in. The CIA agent telling him what to do is an absurdly over-the-top femme fatale (Amber Heard), who wouldn’t look out of place in Sin City, sticking out like a sore thumb in the rest of the film. She’s an underdeveloped cliché, and so ridiculously capable we begin to wonder why she doesn’t just do it all herself, rather than getting the man with 3 months to live involved.
Between the family drama, disposable action nonsense, femme fatales and an awkward smattering of misjudged comedy, 3 Days to Kill struggles to find the right tone. This is a completely forgettable action film, albeit one with more focus on its characters, and less on its action, than most. But some decent villains and a comprehensible spy plot really wouldn’t have gone amiss.