A thoroughly entertaining and surprisingly touching story of a CIA agent who learns he has terminal cancer and tries to restore his relationship with his estranged wife and teen daughter while being forced into one last assassination, "3 Days to Kill' works on every level: as a cleverly shot action-film romp, a hilarious comedy and, most of all, as a story of a man facing down death and trying to make real amends with his ex-wife and estranged child.
The movie follows international CIA spy Ethan Renner (Costner), who is chasing a dirty-nuke bomb smuggler named The Wolf and his sidekick named The Albino in Paris, where they are about to sell a bomb to rogue Syrians. He is under the direction of a young female agent named Vivi (Heard), who doesn’t know what The Wolf looks like in close-up and thus needs Ethan to do the killing or capture of him.
When an opening showdown goes awry, Ethan is rocked with convulsive headaches and flashbacks, awaking in a hospital to learn that he has brain cancer that has spread to his lungs, giving him a persistent cough. His CIA boss tells him he won’t live to see the next Christmas, so he is set free to get his affairs in order – which in Ethan’s case means making peace with his ex-wife (Nielsen) and his daughter Zooey (Steinfeld) after being a terribly distant husband and father.
But his ex has one condition: that Ethan must be retired. He promises her he is, just as Vivi reappears to give him an offer he literally can’t refuse. If Ethan will take down The Wolf within the next three days, she’ll arrange a million-dollar life insurance policy for him that will take care of his family when he dies, and she’ll also give him access to a highly experimental drug that can greatly increase his life span.
Thus begins an impressively entertaining tightrope act between Ethan’s parental responsibilities (his ex has left him in charge of Zooey for the 3-day weekend) and his need to save the world. It would be easy for director McG - who has built most of his career on flashy but empty movies like "Charlie's Angels" and "This Is War" and writers Besson and Hasak to take the low road and just deliver another clichéd take on the work vs home life of a spy.
But they pull off something far greater here. Much like James Cameron revived the spy genre through action and humor in "True Lies," McG and his writers bring new life to a hackneyed premise by taking things in the other direction and being serious about their plot. Costner plays his role at full tilt: an action hero when he needs to be, funny when a little burst of humor is needed, but downright terrific in both confronting Ethan’s mortality and a lifetime of regrets.
"3 Days to Kill" is that rare action movie that isn’t afraid to slow down and take a breath at unexpected moments. There are surprisingly funny chases and fights in which both Ethan and his nemeses are injured but keep struggling to get the upper hand, but what makes this movie a keeper not only in the theatre but in any fun video collection is its beautifully shot moments where Ethan teaches Zooey to ride a bike or to dance for the first time.
In these moments, "3 Days to Kill" also shows that it has a deeper message about family and forgiveness and appreciating the fleeting moments of a truly good life. It’s such a rare and positive portrayal of parent-teen relations that these good points should overrule the very brief moments of implied salaciousness when a random couple is kissing outside a club and an implied topless dancer is onstage for about 10 seconds yet obscured by fog. There is also a touching subplot in which Ethan allows a homeless family of apartment squatters to stay in his apartment until their daughter gives birth rather than throwing them out, with a birth scene that is among the film's many beautifully drawn moments.
The movie has two F-words and four uses of JC in vain, and frequent but non-graphic or bloody violence. As such, "3 Days to Kill" is largely inoffensive, extremely entertaining and a positive portrayal of family, making it a winner for teens and adults.
Carl Kozlowski has been a professional film critic and essayist for the past five years at Pasadena Weekly, in addition to the Christian movie site Movieguide.org, the conservative pop culture site Breitbart.coms Big Hollywood, the Christian pop culture magazine Relevant and New City newspaper in Chicago. He also writes in-depth celebrity interviews for Esquire.com and The Progressive. He is owner of the podcasting site www.radiotitans.com, which was named one of the Frontier Fifty in 2013 as one of the 50 best talk-radio outlets in the nation by www.talkers.com and will be relaunching it in January 2014 after a five-month sabbatical. He lives in Los Angeles.