All-New Ghost Rider #1



The dimensions Tradd Moore gives All-New Ghost Rider hero Robbie Reyes threaten to become interesting. With the angular lankiness of a Brendan McCarthy drawing, Reyes’ human form is high eyebrows and punk-skunk hair. As Ghost Rider he becomes even more exaggerated, rictus teeth transforming the trademarked flaming skull from a bony replacement head to Dia de Muertos-themed facepaint. With the leather daddy outfit and a souped-up Dodge Charger, there’s even a resemblance to David Carradine’s masked killer driver Frankenstein from Death Race 2000. Moore couches this new Rider in the visual language of car-racing movies, particularly Speed Racer and the Fast and the Furious franchise: frenetic transitions go from aspect-to-moment-to-action, breaking the 180-degree rule with impunity as different tiers change the direction characters are facing. A clear departure for an IP traditionally associated with biker culture, yet Ghost Rider has always been an aesthetic-driven concept, a cool image propping up a core idea too thin for ongoing serialization–as opposed to Spider-Man, Batman, etc., whose personalities and backstories are strong enough to be preserved through numerous reinterpretations. Ghost Rider can, and should, be able to swap out key parts, scrounging up whatever it can to get an eye-catching new visual.


Problem is, Moore and writer Felipe Smith peddle caricature instead of character. They borrow the inner-city dynamic of Howard Mackie and Javier Saltares’ 90s Ghost Rider relaunch in a plot structure similar to the recent Ms. Marvel #1 (daily routine, which is broken at night, with an activated super-powers cliffhanger), only to paint with the broad brush of miserablism. Robbie sulks and broods over drive-by shootings, thugs bullying his mentally-handicapped younger brother, and a boss who attempts to cheat him out of pay. This melodrama is contrasted with the brother’s depiction as a screeching, bug-eyed Nickelodeon cartoon with rubber band arms and retrograde naivete (inconsistently, he goes from being scared when Robbie attacks the bullies to proud of him after he gets beaten up, thinking Robbie “showed them”). It’s easily the most insulting attempt at preciousness from Marvel Comics so far. Yet, even this (ill-thought) “levity” is meant to highlight how awful Robbie has it–he cries at his brother’s misunderstandings–justifying a reckless attempt to win $50K in a street race. This narrow worldview, where the brothers exhibit only comical obliviousness or noble suffering, mistakes mockery and pity for empathy. Why would anyone waste a punk design on something so maudlin and cruel?



Much of Contracted is tight close-ups of its insecure protagonist, poring over her decaying physical state in the days following her being raped by a creepy stranger at a party. Eric England piles on a number of David Cronenberg steals, from fingernails and teeth falling out to squirm-inducing amounts of blood in vomit and urine, which he contrasts with star Najarra Townsend’s demure appearance to suggest tainted beauty (especially when she applies makeup to cover up her appearance). He even ties Samantha’s (Townsend) downward spiral into necrosis with other facets of her life: her romance with snotty Nikki, the disapproval of her mother, and the unwanted advances of a dweeby Nice Guy, slob pothead (with a passing similarity to Jorge Garcia), and party-hard best friend Alice. None of this dysfunction is recognizably human, though. Upon discovering Samantha was raped, Alice informs Nikki instead that Samantha cheated on her–a ludicrously garbled plot point mistaking rape for promiscuity (except Nikki also admits to cheating while giving a stern breakup speech. “Incompetent” doesn’t begin to describe this script). The rapist himself is treated like an incidental player, only ever shown in IFC-standard soft focus as he goes from fingering a corpse to stalking and drugging Samantha, before disappearing entirely. Half-assed mentions of a manhunt offer hints of a larger, more sinister context, but England is more interested in slut-shaming Samantha by turning her into a sex-crazed slasher zombie. His sole success is making a walking corpse the least repulsive element of a walking corpse movie.

Upstream Color


Upstream Color is all muscular ideas and artful craft. For his second movie, Shane Carruth sidesteps the tendency to expound through dialogue: how the cyclical, parasitic worms around which the story revolves, and the syndicate which profits off it, operate is left entirely to visual cues. The movie unfolds showing Kris (Amy Seimetz) infected with one of the creatures by a lanky pusher (simply named “Thief”), her worm transplanted into a pig by a farmer (Andrew Sensenig), from there passing to orchids which are harvested by the thief’s associates to manufacture mind control drugs. A hive-mind side effect between various hosts is communicated with match cuts–mainly hands touching objects. Even more interesting is how Carruth’s trim approach uses what isn’t said to inform the world his characters live in. After her infection, Kris awakens from a hypnotic state to discover her savings stolen. With barely any clothes on, she experiences sexual shame, refusing to call police or tell anyone what happened. This is only exasperated when her boss fires her for the lengthy absence, unconcerned with her whereabouts. Despite her sleepwalking nature during the infection, banks accept her coerced financial self-destruction at face value. Accountability and social safety nets seem non-existent.

Though miles apart tonally, Upstream Color shares with Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop a sustained look into dehumanization. While able to function again in society, even start a romance with fellow victim Jeff (Carruth), Kris is diminished–even discovering she’s become infertile. Kris and Jeff both suffer bouts of telepathy-induced source amnesia (mixing up their childhoods) and sudden emotional duress (feeling what happens to the pigs carrying their parasites). As the film progresses, Carruth shows similar effects on other victims. Exploited and hollowed out like Peter Weller’s metal encased superhero, they are disregarded by society. Each struggles, hoping to reclaim a sense of identity (a wife who keeps looping the same phrases to her husband). It is implied the farmer at the center of this operation had also been infected: standing amongst the pigs, he experiences and observes the lives of his victims through psychic connection. Not malevolent like the thief, but also feeling no accountability for profiting from misery, he has dealt with his victimhood by becoming apex parasite. Kris herself goes through confusion, depression, anger, and finally compassion for the others to combat her trauma, yet her loss is permanent. Breaking this systemic, self-fulfilling abuse doesn’t undo its hurts or make her whole, simply offers the briefest of comforts. Perhaps that’s enough.

Little Control, No Escape

(Note: Video comes from Youtube user XekeLand)

It’s looking like 2014 is going to explode with procedurally-generated games. Galak-Z: The Dimensional, This War of Mine, and No Man’s Sky (among others) promise to randomize and personalize player experience while maintaining slick presentation. Developers of more straightforwardly-designed games are even touting a greater degree of unpredictability (Alien: Isolation and its “sentient” xenomorph). Ben Croshaw’s beta for The Consuming Shadow is hardly slick, with a clumsy mouse/keyboard interface. The early version I played has the mouse used for aiming, item management and movement, frustrating when trying to outrun unkillable servants of a cosmic horror. Microsoft Paint graphics represent the player’s character and the abominations he encounters as barely-animated silhouettes. With a Dead Rising-style 72 “hour” time limit before the world is engulfed by some ancient god, limited supplies, and a good chance any quest or random event will result in broken limbs or bleeding wounds–to say nothing of loss to sanity, which creates gameplay-screwing hallucinations and an increased likelihood the avatar will blow his brains out–it’s also punishing. A level up system which carries from one life to the next the single act of (existentially horrific) pity by an otherwise apathetic multiverse, trapping the character. While functionally frustrating, this forced helplessness is compelling. Like Jasper Byrne’s Lone Survivor, one must weigh the risks of any approach: waste bullets on minions and hope nothing worse is behind the next door; melee attack and probably suffer damage; run away or use magic at the cost of one’s mind. While Byrne encouraged patience and hoarding goods, Croshaw often forces players’ hands. Help a civilian? Investigate a blighted town? Deliver potentially useful packages? Maybe you’ll find clues to stop this evil, maybe you’ll waste your last precious moments. Even the best intention could be the wrong one. Everything is chance and desperation.

Fun For the Whole Family

Hawkeye #17
Art by Chris Eliopoulos and David Aja
Writing by Matt Fraction
Published by Marvel


I’m at a loss for how to talk about Hawkeye anymore. Starting as Miller/Mazzucchelli-lite, with Year One‘s upstart Batman and Born Again‘s Daredevil under siege replaced with an idiot-savant interpretation of Hawkeye, there was promise. David Aja’s minimalist backgrounds and frumpy character designs sketched out a vision for a Marvel series which, for the first time in years, showed interest in the ordinary while still allowing the Poppy elements of superhero fiction (costumes, insignias, dynamic fight scenes) to bleed into the edges. This even breathed some humanity into Matt Fraction’s usual dopey, Mildly Quirky dialogue: Clint Barton is occasionally badass, but marred by impulsiveness and social ineptitude (particularly the teased maybe-romance he has with Kate, a.k.a. Hawkeye 2), making Fraction’s dialogue a nervous tic rather than “postmodern” and “cool”. With a cast of tenants in an apartment block Barton has bought/taken under his protection (from a gang of tracksuit thugs), there was even some wiggle room to explore issues of class (Clint an awkward, nouveau riche slob; Kate a spoiled heiress with competence; the tenants resourceful working poor). A clever arrangement.

Only Fraction’s too clever. To the point he charted the series into a string of filler issues, mainly gimmicky POV switches like #11‘s World According to Pizza Dog, and a continually delayed showdown against a teardrop-tattooed assassin in favor of bad sitcom hijinks. Tedious, rudderless, self-congratulatory, Hawkeye the series sells ‘Net memes rather than aesthetic and themes. If there was a nadir, a “Christmas Special” guest-drawn by Chris Eliopoulos–using bobble-heads and crescent mouths to blandly evoke Charles Schulz–about mutliculturalist holiday heroes and canines dressed as the Avengers (for reasons?), which trades any notion of festivity (religious or otherwise communal) for a pithy moral about “accepting help,” well, that would be it.

Revenge #1
Art by Ian Churchill
Writing by Jonathan Ross
Published by Image


As part of the 90s Image house artists, Ian Churchill’s potential has been stifled. The overdone linework, crosshatching, and distorted anatomy he absorbed from Rob Liefeld, Jim Lee, and Marc Silvestri devoted to ill-fitting superhero titles (Uncanny X-MenThe Ravagers) where the bulging muscle-men and well-endowed (yet twig-armed) super-babes were ugly representations of reactionary politics (currently, this school of comic art is more prominent in DC’s New 52, Marvel nipping occasionally at the heels). Revenge‘s first issue, ironically, frees Churchill by going all in on depravity and debauchery. Churchill revels in the wrinkled face of aging action star Griffin Franks–leathery like the horrors of Richard Corben’s underground comix–as he has sex with his (much younger) fourth wife Candy. She’s just convinced Griffin to get an experimental facelift in Mexico to save his career, though this is a con; a grotesque plot to rob him of his money (revenge for inadvertently destroying her family decades prior). Griffin spends the issue on the surgical table, chemically left awake but motionless as Candy mocks him. The pain induces hallucinatory tableaux where past, present, and fantasy intersect–Griffin’s action hero role “the Revenger” appearing amidst flashbacks of his womanizing, talk show interviews, and absentee-fathering (Jonathan Ross’ timeline is barely coherent), even a redemptive act of reconnecting with a daughter is sullied. Under Churchill’s kaleidoscopic view of pain and perversion, Revenge inflicts its violence upon the reader, blood dripping from panel to panel, page to page, until it’s clear anything noble or good or decent its protagonist had or could have done has been smothered by the lives he’s stepped on for his own gratification. Griffin’s own proclamation of revenge, manifesting his screen persona like a slasher film villain, doesn’t offer the possibility of catharsis or justice: only more grotesque, unglamorous bloodletting. Churchill’s newfound specialty.



Punk chick Annabel (Jessica Chastain) doesn’t want to be a mom. She’s first introduced staring at a negative pregnancy test, saying “Thank you, God.” With her tattoos and a wardrobe of tank tops, Misfits T-shirts, and tattered jeans, she doesn’t ‘look’ the part. Soon enough, though, she’s dragged by her boyfriend Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) into caregiving for his nieces, who are semi-feral from five years in the wilderness after a botched murder/suicide attempt by their businessman father. Oh, and they were raised by a spidery, possessive banshee.

Mama, at its best, uses its contrived plot to correlate childhood fears with Annabel’s own insecurities about parenting. Asking Victoria and Lilly (Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nélisse) “What’s in the closet?” and “What’s under the bed?” when she (almost) catches sight of their supernatural Mama, Annabel has lost any sense of control–of herself and her life. Andrés Muschietti shoots scenes where she is framed by doorways or otherwise isolated from the children within their rural, state-picked home (a condition of granting custody): she’s vaguely aware of the ghost’s presence, but wants out of her situation (“It’s not my job”). Only after Lucas is hospitalized, by Mama, does Annabel take interest in the girls. She converses with the more receptive Victoria or warms a freezing, resistant Lilly in an embrace similar to how Ripley catches the terrified Newt in Aliens. Mama herself is like the Queen Alien, elongated fingers and cranium, fighting Annabel for control of Lilly and Victoria. Her presence in the house is even marked by a blackened orifice, a gateway from which she and moth-servants spring forth. This rivalry posits a Gen Y update of James Cameron’s classic, but Muschietti piles on contrivances: a case worker investigating Mama’s rote backstory and a great-aunt who also wants the kids are dull. Their only purpose to push towards a senseless climax in a digitally-colored Thomas Kinkade forest (executive producer Guillermo del Toro’s rubber-stamp on the project). The movie becomes so cluttered, Muschietti forgets to give Chastain her own “Get away from her, you bitch!”

Another Spin, Maybe I’ll Get Lucky (I Won’t)

Mighty Avengers #6-7
Art by Valerio Schiti
Writing by Al Ewing
Published by Marvel


As consummately professional as Al Ewing has been on scripting Mighty Avengers (in the Roger Stern/Kurt Busiek/Mark Waid mold one hardly sees outside of, well, those writers anymore), the series is still held back by its visuals. Valerio Schiti on fill-in duty is much more dynamic than the stilted hackwork of Greg Land: characters occupy space and interact from panel-to-panel (possessed superhero White Tiger taking down teammates Power Man and Iron Fist in a fight), where Land would settle for pinups and micro-panels showing punches thrown but never in relation to anything or anyone else. While Schiti is hardly as energetic as Emma Rios on Pretty Deadly (where inset panels and aspect-to-aspect transitions are used to create mood within the action), it does prize a stylistic utilitarianism common to those 80s superhero comics Ewing seems to be drawing upon. Watching heroine White Tiger go from brooding angst to vengeful purpose, spurred on by her Tiger God when she catches word her family’s killer is out on the street and working with a shady PAC (subtext!), especially recalls the gritty/urban thriller aesthetic of John Romita, Jr. Unfortunately, Schiti is held back by how polished these pages are. Schiti’s inking is too neat–Romita collaborators Dan Green and Klaus Janson would have introduced scratchy, grimy lines to the street brawls between White Tiger and her surprised, outmatched comrades–and Frank D’Armata’s muted coloring tries harder to be artistic in the same manner as a generic still-life portrait than to create tone. Even when Ewing puts kid-friendly tropes through a self-serving pragmatic lens (the team protecting the scumbag from White Tiger’s wrath so they don’t suffer political consequences), the sterilized artwork turns this into squeaky-clean, heavy-handed sitcom bits. Mighty Avengers coasts when it could cut.

Hacktivist #1-2
Art by Marcus To
Writing by Jackson Lanzing & Collin Kelly
Created by Alyssa Milano
Published by Archaia


Celebrity “created” comics are a strange by-product of the industry’s Hollywoodization. Get somebody (either a recognizable name like Nicolas Cage or an already-forgotten hack like Marcus Nispel) to sign off on turning some half-assed pitch they liked into a comic book (made by completely different somebodies) on the off chance of then licensing it as a movie based on a comic book and/or “graphic novel” (preferably starring or directed by the original somebody). Hacktivist (“Created by Alyssa Milano”) fits comfortably into this bland mold, its only unique feature being colorist Ian Herring’s appropriation of the blue/orange scheme popular in contemporary Hollywood films to make Marcus To’s artwork pop–which, to be fair, is a remarkable step up in quality of the brown/brown/darker brown Marvel and DC had been/are still favoring. Even then, To’s depiction of a hacker/industrialist causing the New York skyline to light up with the press of a button is the only image which stands out. So, there we go: hand me down movie tricks in a okay-drawn comic screaming “I want to be a movie!” Even the political edge this comic promotes–that of a pair of super-rich social media tycoons helping out the lowly plebes protesting against inequality through their own techno-savvy–flatters the Hollywood machine. Opening with a Tunisian uprising, which the tycoons offer salvation for, lends the appearance of liberal social consciousness, yet really it’s another spin on the benevolent 1% (a Republican-approved tale), who have to contend with a duplicitous (femme fatale) government agent. Those Tunisian protesters, fighting for survival and some vague promise of freedom? They’re an after-thought. What they’re rebelling against, what they stand for, these are neither text nor subtext. They’re little more than toys for a blonde, blue-eyed rich kid playing at freedom fighter, taking cyberpunk and post-cyberpunk’s navigation of corporate oligarchy and turning it into social media marketing. Activism hacked.

Three #5
Art by Ryan Kelly
Writing by Kieron Gillen
Published by Image


Was it a coincidence the conclusion of Three came out as 300: Rise of an Empire barreled its way into theaters? Probably an irrelevant question, but considering the series has stressed the ways it is a reaction to Frank Miller’s original 300 graphic novel about the Spartans–which Zack Snyder adapted into a lurid, slick action fantasy–it does seem fitting the cinematic sequel and the postmodern, deconstructionist comic should entwine like this. Ryan Kelly, a realist in the tradition of Alex Raymond, draws Three not with the mythic embellishment of Miller (which Snyder green-screened into plasticized reality) but with subdued range, similar to his UFO/political thriller Saucer Country (created with writer Paul Cornell). The spitting, screaming proclamations of Miller’s Leonidas replaced with the gritted-teeth annoyance of Agesilaos, insulted by the titular three helots who defy him with their own Thermopylaean stand. Aided by Jordie Bellaire’s hellish reds and oranges (which invoke enough of Lynn Varley, Miller’s wife and colorist), this realism even flips Miller’s script, with loner Klaros guarding the mouth of a cave from his Spartan pursuers; killing a hound, he challenges, “Send men…if you have any,” (writer Kieron Gillen channeling Miller’s hyper-masculinity to mock the very men Miller gave admiration for). The Spartans posited as defenders of freedom by Miller/Snyder here shown as the same barbarous horde they thought of the Persians they fought off. Rather than 300‘s stirring, face-value denouement about freedom, however–or even the ultraviolent cool of Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s We3 (another 3-against-an-army narrative)–Klaros is simply engaged in an act of bluster. Political theater in an effort to buy minutes for himself and his compatriots Damar and Terpander. The three know they are cornered, with zero chance of winning, but understand how iconography has social power. With a tactical use of their dead end, Damar doing as much healing as she can, and Terpander changing armor with Klaros during a lull, they put on a charade to bring their masters low. Even entrenched in Sparta’s iniquity, and the knowledge their lives will not even be a footnote of history (a fact which hangs over a moment of intimacy between Damar and Klaros), they choose to defy. To announce they matter, despite being low and common. Kelly’s realism is a reminder: humanity, fleeting as it is, will always be greater than mythology.

Did I Ever Tell You I’m an Award-Winning Poet? Does It Matter At All?

Just one comics review. It’s one people are talking about a lot in some corner of the Internet. And probably not for reasons its author intended.


Zen Pencils #146
By Whatever That Zen Pencils Guy’s Name Is
Self-Published Web Comic
(which I refuse to link to)
(If you feel the need to get the whole comic, you can probably find it even if some mouthbreather hasn’t already retweeted it, shared it on Facebook, or Fed it through the Buzz and labelled it “important”)

What’s funny about Zen Pencils overall, and this installment of Zen Pencils in particular, is how insecure this guy is. When you’re inserting Hayao Miyazaki–supposedly this guy’s artistic hero*–into the role of all-perfect champion of goodness (a.k.a. “your webcomic”), depicting a quote from Theodore Roosevelt disparaging critics being painted onto a giant mech meant to go out killing anyone the least bit critical of your work “haters and trolls,” it’s evident you’re having issues relating to people and don’t understand art, criticism, or their importance in relation to each other or the wider culture**. When you follow up your shallow, disgustingly narcissistic temper tantrum with a blurb telling your readers “you probably don’t know who Hayao Miyazaki is” [he made Godzilla, right? lol] despite opening with “A lot of you guessed [that was] Hayao Miyazaki,” you’re then being a condescending piece of shit.

But, whatever: I feel bad for Zen Pencils dude. I really do. He had the simple goal of repackaging other people’s writing and speeches (often with absolutely no understanding of the people writing or speaking them, like when he did a comic about an Ayn Rand quote despite not knowing who she was) into banal, mediocre clickbait so he can sell ad space or screen prints or whatever consumerist bullshit he’s got in the works, peddling someone else’s hard work and suffering (like, say, Malala Yousafzai) into pseudo-feel-good messages of “quit your job, fuck over people who love and care for you, and go cosplay as some Game of Thrones character or something” to be easily swallowed by other shallow, condescending, disgustingly narcissistic dipshits who will then pay out of pocket for more of that…and some people had the nerve to come along and point out his comics were a little insipid and he shouldn’t be plagiarizing quotes from Bill Watterson (amongst others) for his own personal gain? How fucking dare they!?

*I say “supposedly,” as anime filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki is notoriously critical of the industry, having made waves amongst anime enthusiasts a scant few weeks ago by saying (and I paraphrase) most anime is garbage nowadays because it’s made by anime fans (or “otaku”). Zen Pencils guy also has him constructing a giant, anime-style mech despite Miyazaki never having made any movies about mechs (and generally described as a pacifist). Now, I would hate to imply Zen Pencils guy has, at best, only a slight comprehension of Miyazaki as an artist and thought “Hmm, this guy made a few movies I like, and he’s well-respected, so if I just use his image as the mouthpiece for my anti-critics comic, then everyone will recognize my genius!” I would also hate to imply Zen Pencils guy is simply lazy and arrogant. So, I just wrote those things, making them explicit.

**I would also like to point out how disturbing it is successful webcomic hacks like Zen Pencils guy love to bash the concept of criticism. Leonard Pierce wrote elegantly on similar phenomena when it was the PVP guy defending Marvel Studios’ The Avengers from people who suggested donating money to charity to help former comic creators living in poverty was a good idea. The comfortable certainly don’t like being reminded of the proles.

The Children of Gaming


Trading in their penchant for branching narratives, Obsidian instead give South Park: The Stick of Truth the focus of traditional RPGs’ stat management and simplistic plots to better gut gamer culture. With South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone on scripting duties, Stick of Truth even has that authentic mix of pitch-black toilet humor and wry commentary. Players are dropped, as The New Kid, into Parker/Stone’s Colorado village of idiots during a LARP war between two factions: the Kingdom of Kupa Keep, led by Cartman (slyly christened “the Grand Wizard”), play typical fantasy humans, meek personalities on a genocide march against the Other (for pretend) in service of a cruel dictator who gouges them for money (for real); the “elves,” led by Kyle and Stan, are theoretically good, but in practice isolationist, indifferent. Of course, this is all a game to the kids, even when a crashed UFO and black ops-types actually threaten everyone’s lives (South Park’s adults are typically clueless). New Kid goes through the motions–questing, leveling, looting, making friends. He explores town through the prism of fantasy tropes and Paper Mario-esque combat mixing turn-based strategy (which other kids complain about) and quick time event reflex tests. Parker and Stone break the fourth wall all over the game, but Stick of Truth‘s triumph is its portrayal of Kenny. Taking on the role of Princess like an English Renaissance actor (girls don’t game with the boys), Kenny checks off Action Heroine traits–including a special ability to show some skin to distract enemies–his entire view of females informed by an exclusive boy’s club. The others aren’t any better, Cartman’s crew assuming Kenny will be raped by the “elves” during an abduction. Players are invited to soul search if they see themselves in these oblivious children.



Taken for 3 Days to Kill, Kevin Costner’s folksy Americana routine gets an approximation of deconstruction. Where that other Luc Besson produced/co-written vehicle about an ex-CIA hitman winning back his family while killing undesirables gave Liam Neeson a superhuman, indomitable ability to take apart opponents with the same ease as he could deliver stone cold proclamations, Costner here is made vulnerable if no less capable.

Old, retired, suffering coughing fits and nosebleeds from terminal cancer, Ethan Renner (Costner) arrives in Paris to reunite with an estranged wife Christina (Connie Nielsen) and daughter Zooey (Hailee Steinfeld). Complicating matters is a vamped-up CIA heavy named Vivi (Amber Heard) luring Ethan back for one last job–eliminating international crooks dealing dirty bombs. Vivi dangles in one hand a super-drug which could cure Ethan, and enough money to keep his family comfortable (should he die anyway) in the other. This physical and psychological attack plays out in equal measure when Ethan gets into close quarters combat or becomes stressed by keeping his professional life secret from his daughter. Both trigger a nasty side effect of the drug, where his vision becomes blurry and he experiences mild hallucinations.

As with most movies out of the Besson farm post-Transporter, women are catch-all pains in the ass: Christina has doubts about leaving Ethan in charge of caring for their daughter when she has to go on business, and Zooey is all dagger stares, deception, and terse responses–Steinfeld still channeling the iciness of her debut in the Coens’ True Grit–frustrating Ethan’s attempts to be a proper father (she refuses to ride a bicycle he buys for her). Vivi, meanwhile, is a revolving door of Gothic fetish-wear, hairstyles and/or wigs, flaunting her bisexuality (a male goon she has at her beck and call; two female strippers she watches while lounging in a club) as she exerts control over Ethan. Icona Pop’s “I Love It,” set as a ringtone on Ethan’s phone by Zooey, sums up his inability to relate to these women with the lyrics, “You’re from the ’70′s/but I’m a ’90′s bitch.” And while Costner has made the “genuine Midwesterner” his calling card since Field of Dreams (he tells Zooey, “You have Steelers’ blood in you”), here it’s underscored with the knowledge he secretly kills and tortures people. There’s a shadiness to Ethan more pronounced than in other Costner roles, which makes Zooey’s distrust and apprehension appropriate.

Simply brutalizing foreigners, like Ethan’s Taken counterpart, won’t win her over, either. Even when Ethan saves Zooey from sexual assault in a nightclub, the violence only exacerbates her fear of him. Instead, he has to find a way to understand her. This leads to unexpected, occasionally brilliant moments of humor when Ethan bonds with three other men over family issues: the patriarch of an immigrant family squatting in his apartment (Eriq Ebouaney), the accountant for the criminal he’s tracking (Bruno Ricci), and another henchman named Matit (Marc Andréoni). The highlight of this comes when Ethan kidnaps Matit a second time: the two discuss Ethan’s absentee-fathering while preparing a trunk for Matit’s occupation, applying the Ralph Wolf/Sam Sheepdog dynamic to War on Terror ridiculousness (in that respect, Besson’s choice for director, the mono-named hack McG, is appropriate with his rapid-fire-cut fight scenes and fondness for almost sadistic cartoon humor carried over from Charlie’s Angels and Terminator: Salvation).

Ethan and Matit especially find themselves reflecting on what it means to be a man in the 21st century, feminism and multiculturalism having cracked what some would call “traditional values” (Ethan affectionately calls Matit “the father who knows best”). Their solution to this dilemma boils down to reliability: Matit structures his life–being home in time for dinner, dropping his daughter off at school in the morning–while Ethan finally makes time for the parenting he avoided under the guise of “duty” and “responsibility” (including teaching Zooey how to dance, just earned enough to avoid being mawkish). Of course, this becomes increasingly difficult: the more Ethan tries to get closer to Zooey, the more his professional life entwines itself with his personal one, culminating in an (admittedly) absurd twist. The tension in 3 Days to Kill becomes not whether Ethan will die, or whether the bad guys will get away, but whether or not he’ll kill what little chance he has left to be the person he always should’ve been for a job.