Infamously, in The Big Sleep (1946), a classic Bogart film noir, the director Howard Hawks couldn’t understand a central plot point: who killed the chauffeur? He contacted the author Raymond Chandler, whose novel he was adapting, and asked him. Chandler said, “Damned if I know.” A tight plot isn’t important if the rest of the film works well enough for you not to care about a murdered man. 3 Days to Kill (2014), while it will never be called a classic, succeeds in the same way for those who submit to the beguiling charm it has to offer. I have no doubt that I will be in the minority, but I thoroughly enjoyed this film, overlooking all dead chauffeurs and transparent R-rating evasion. What does it matter if a story can be diagramed or motivations can be boiled down to a sentence or two? It was a great time.
We’re at the CIA, a bad guy (Richard Sammel) is in Belgrade. Vivi (Amber Heard), you go to Belgrade and kill bad guy. Ethan (Kevin Costner) is a journeyman killer for the CIA, there to take care of the bad guy B-team (Tómas Lemarquis) and avert something or other. It goes wrong and before all the bad guys can get killed, Ethan falls and passes out. Turns out that bad cough was cancer that spread to his lungs, leaving him three months or so on this mortal plane. His killing days seemingly behind him, Ethan goes home to Paris to reconnect with his estranged family. This requires some maneuvering to adjust to the wiles of a teenage girl, Zoey (Hailee Steinfeld) (though things with his ex-wife (Connie Nielsen) are going remarkably well). Just when he’s getting traction, Vivi comes into his life with a deal: you’ve seen the bad guy, so I’ll give you this experimental drug to extend your life if you finish the job. A life for a life. Or, as it turns out, dozens of lives for a life.
If modern critics had as much disdain for noir as they do the other genres, The Big Sleep would be a cult classic if it were even remembered at all. But noir isn’t disdained, it is hallowed by Hollywood royalty that, to a man, dipped their toes or full careers in the dark pool. Action thrillers have no such pedigree. The Hays Code and then the rating system meant that blood would flow freely only when they had the color film to shoot it. Someone may take a shovel to the head in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) and there was even a shoot out in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), but action was either off-screen or incredibly theatrical. Thus, the kind of charity required to enjoy some of those early crime or mystery films is almost never extended to action films (or sci-fi or fantasy). Unless the critic in question is in the mood to call it fun.
3 Days to Kill is pretty fun. A look back on the film, piecing it together as one does, reveals a patchwork of events and plot-turns glued together by fun and violence. Costner is almost as well suited to this material as he is to baseball movies. The man has aged well and he’s still unbelievably folksy–as is his Pittsburgh Steeler-loving character. There’s a seemingly pointless connection Ethan has to this purple bicycle he bought for his daughter. This gives director McG the opportunity to create a musical vignette where Ethan rides around Paris which is somehow charming, beautiful, and (for me) believable. The movie has a very wide range of tones–as you might expect where a CIA hitman charmingly rides a girl’s purple bike through Paris–that would usually spell disaster.
Doubtless, a fair few unsympathetic viewers would say that it did, in actuality, spell disaster in capital letters, but I disagree. Whether I was particularly pliable on a Saturday afternoon or not, I took each moment on its own and digested it easily. Much of the plot is opaque. Is he actually sick? If he is–and there’s no reason to really suspect he isn’t–are the drugs helping or hurting him? What’s the connection between the Wolf and Zoey’s friend’s family? How does Ethan avoid getting thrown in jail about a dozen times? Somehow, these confusions only make me like the movie more. It ends on a note of deep ambiguity which should inspire endless conversations for the few dozen souls who will actually bring witnesses to their own taboo love of action and Kevin Costner.
I am unforgivably burying my lede when I tell you that this is a Luc Besson joint. If you are unfamiliar with Besson, as I’m sure most civilians are, then you are missing out on the most glorious guide to the European action flick working today. Besson is the man behind the following films: The Professional (1994), The Fifth Element (1997), The Transporter (2002), Taken (2008), and Lockout (2012). The word on Besson is that he’s always making the same film. While directed by McG, and co-written with Adi Hasak, this is very much a mashup of Taken and The Professional. There’s a father trying to connect with his daughter, the CIA, a man who has to take one more job before he’s out of the game forever, and a couple off-beat musical choices that seem too classy to be in this sort of movie. It’s a recycling job like nothing else. But Besson is a craftsman. He knows what he’s doing. Apparently, so does McG because I like just about every shot in the film.
But I do have one major question. Why are there subtitles for a Frenchman speaking English?
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