“3 Days to Kill” offers us a dilemma. Can ex-CIA operative Ethan Renner (Kevin Costner) repair his relationship with his estranged teenage daughter, Zoey (Hailee Steinfeld), while maintaining his commitment to his old employer, who has pulled him out of retirement for one last round of targeted killing, extraordinary rendition and enhanced interrogation?
That narrative predicament is precisely echoed by the challenges faced by the film’s director, McG. Best known as the director of “Charlie’s Angels” and the producer of numerous TV shows, including “The O.C.” and “Chuck,” the filmmaker born Joseph McGinty Nichol attempts to negotiate a middle path between the loud action thriller that this film’s trailer makes you think you’re buying a ticket to and the sappy drama of father-daughter bonding that the movie really is.
Costner, for his part, makes juggling his character’s twin obligations look easy. Ethan rarely breaks a sweat, whether he’s shooting arms dealers or pulling a bunch of would-be rapists off of his daughter in a nightclub men’s room. For McG — who has to convince people to sit through the scenes of Ethan teaching his daughter how to ride a bike or slow dance just to get to the part where he hooks some guy up to jumper cables — the disconnect is more jarring. “3 Days to Kill” feels like two very different movies, neither of which is particularly good.
Most of the blame falls to Luc Besson, who co-wrote the screenplay, from his own story idea, with Adi Hasak (“From Paris With Love”). As a writer, Besson is notoriously hit-or-miss, with hits like 1997’s “The Fifth Element” sharing space on his résumé with last year’s bomb “The Family.” As melodrama, “3 Days to Kill” comes across as pat and saccharine. As a popcorn flick, it’s overly predictable. And the balance between the two is off.
The story gets underway when Ethan, recently retired and diagnosed with terminal cancer, undertakes one final assignment from a mysterious woman named Vivi (Amber Heard), who offers him what she claims is an experimental cure in exchange for his service. The conflict arises when Ethan learns that he must conduct his dirty business, which involves finding and killing an arms dealer (Richard Sammel), while chaperoning Zoey, who has been left in Ethan’s care for three days by his ex-wife (Connie Nielsen).
In Ethan’s line of work, a gun is the most effective problem-solving tool. That doesn’t fly when it comes to corralling a slightly rebellious adolescent suffering from a bad hair day.
Comedy occurs sporadically, as when Ethan extracts a recipe for spaghetti sauce from a man (Bruno Ricci) whom he is in the middle of torturing, just so Zoey can cook dinner for her boyfriend, Hugh (Jonas Bloquet). When the laughs arise, they’re welcome. But they’re few and far between.
McG keeps hinting at paydays that never come. Is Vivi really on the up and up? Heard plays her like she’s hiding some dark secret, but we never find out what it is. And what’s with the serum that she keeps injecting Ethan with, which seems to be killing him rather than curing him? Finally, how will Ethan handle the discovery that Hugh seems to be tangentially mixed up with the bad guys?
Those and other mysteries are dangled, tantalizingly, in front of the audience, but are never solved. Like Ethan, “3 Days to Kill” has a job to do, but it prefers to shoot first and ask questions later.
(113 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for violence, obscenity and sensuality.