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.