Writer-director Luc Besson hit the jackpot in France with The Professional (1994), starring Jean Reno as a tenderhearted hit man who takes little Natalie Portman under his wing. That same year Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta arrived as lovable killers in Pulp Fiction, and since then the assassin has become a cuddlier figure in American movies, going back to high school (Grosse Pointe Blank), working out the kinks in a professional marriage (Mr. & Mrs. Smith), and shooting the bull (among other things) with a cabbie, just a regular guy at heart (Collateral). Couple this with the action cliche of the hero trying to balance job and family, and the inevitable result is Besson’s latest screenplay, 3 Days to Kill. Directed by Joseph McGinty Nichol (that’s McG to you), it’s the farcical, emotionally hollow tale of a lifelong CIA killer (Kevin Costner) trying to connect with his estranged teenage daughter (Hailee Steinfeld of True Grit) before he dies of lung cancer. For God’s sake, can’t we just enjoy people getting shot once in a while?
McG’s lackluster filmography kicks off with Charlie’s Angels (2000) and bottoms out with the execrable Terminator Salvation (2009), though his more recent spy-versus-spy farce This Means War (2012) proved he can deliver a good action comedy if he’s got a clever script. Unfortunately, the best 3 Days to a Kill manages to cough up is the running gag of having tense action scenes interrupted by the dippy ringtone the hero’s daughter has programmed into his cell phone. The story is pure Bessonian silliness: after Ethan Renner (Costner) learns he has only five months to live and quits the CIA, a vixenish agency officer (Amber Heard) offers to shoot him up with a life-saving experimental drug if he’ll take one last assignment: hunting down the nefarious Albino (Tomas Lemarquis) and his secret backer, the Wolf (Richard Samuel), before they can detonate a suitcase bomb in Paris.
Renner and his family live in Paris because—well, because Besson lives there, I guess, but in any case the whole daddy-daughter drama plays out in the City of Light, with one semicharming scene in which Renner shows up at school with the gift of a bicycle, his daughter rebuffs him, and he rides the thing home himself. But the increasingly ludicrous plot undercuts any suspense; when Renner returns to his Paris apartment and finds a Malian family squatting there, with a pregnant mother no less, he allows them to stay and even bribes one kid to mind the suspect he’s got tied up in the bathroom. Every gag is premised on the fact that Renner allows his work and personal lives to overlap—when he collects his daughter from school, she can hear his suspect thumping away in the car trunk—though this contradicts everything we’ve been told about him and would obviously heighten the risk to his loved ones. The comedy doesn’t quite square with the mawkish scene, late in the proceedings, in which Renner teaches his little girl to dance—though as far as the suspense story goes, their manuever might be utilized as self-defense, causing attackers to barf.