Three Days to Kill, Only Two Hours to Kill Yourself: A New Action Subgenre


Even young Hailee Steinfeld, who snagged an Oscar nom for her memorable, spunky turn in the 2010 Coen bros. flick True Grit, fails to stop or appreciably slow the bleeding in 3 Days to Kill, a CIA family rom-com or action-picture-with-personality starring Kevin Costner, out this evening at a theater near you.

This piece of shit is directed by McG, who perpetrated, among other things, Terminator: Salvation and Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle, and who continues to employ the moniker “McG,” to remind us not to take his work too seriously.

Here we have Kevin Costner, the American everyman and your Browns GM in the upcoming Draft Day, a man who almost thrives in scenes as a father and does the opposite in scenes as a legendary intelligence operative. Costner is just that (ahem, a legendary intelligence operative) in 3 Days to Kill.More specifically, he’s a CIA “lifer” named Ethan Renner who, after a hotel gunfight in Serbia, gets really dizzy and wakes up in a hospital bed to some discouraging news. He’s got brain cancer — yup, brain cancer — and the brain cancer has spread to his lungs. He has three months to live and is dismissed from the force without so much as a happy-hour sendoff.

Renner takes the opportunity to return to Paris (where he lives?) and the wife and daughter he abandoned five years prior because he “traveled too much.” His wife Tina (Connie Nielsen) is none too pleased with the surprise visit, but because her husband’s got brain cancer which has spread to his lungs, she’s soft on him. In lieu of “calling a sitter” for their teenaged daughter Zoooooey (Hailee Steinfeld) who goes clubbing but still requires a sitter, Tina begrudgingly allows Ethan to be in charge for a few days while she’s in London, conveniently “on business.”

And it doesn’t stop there: Ethan gets roped into one last CIA assignment, the drama of which — you guessed it — is playing out during those very same three days in Paris and involves the same criminals who had been in Serbia a few days before (please don’t ask), one of whom is some international sleazebag known only as “The Wolf.” Discerning viewers may notice that “The Wolf” was likely a last-minute script edit, because they’ve re-dubbed several of the scenes here, and The Wolf is repeatedly referred to as something else. Honest to God, it looks like “The Man.”

One ambitious operative named Vivi (Amber Heard) knows that Ethan Renner wouldn’t dive headlong back into the CIA for nothing — he’s an afflicted man! So she offers him an experimental drug — Spoiler: It’s a blue serum administered via monstrous syringe that may actually have been a prop in Underworld: Rise of the Lycans — in exchange for his services, which, recall, though at one time were legendary, now ought to be a tad less impressive given the brain cancer which has spread to his lungs.

The film then putters along for nearly two full hours, trying to solve an emergent identity crisis: Is this an action movie with elements of domestic strife (a la Taken)? Is this a banter-heavy comedy with elements of crime and fist fighting (a la Snatch)? Or is this a family dramedy with borrowed tropes from various action subgenres (a la, I don’t know, One for the Money)? Or is this just Marvin’s Room: Paris. The problem is that McG doesn’t appear to have a clue. Nor, more importantly, does scriptwriter Luc Besson.

Besson is the real culprit here, and it’s high time he’s taken to task for the garbage he’s been prolifically excreting since The Transporter in 2002. Just so you’re all aware, the following bear the Besson stamp:

Unleashed (2005), Transporter 2 (2005), Revolver (adaptation) (2005), Taken (2008), Transporter 3 (2008), From Paris with Love (2010), Colombiana (2011), Lockout (2012), Taken 2 (2012), Transporter: The Series (2012), The Family (2013), and now 3 Days to Kill (2014). Bear in mind that Taken 3 and Transporters 4, 5 and 6, have already been announced.

If you saw Taken 2, (for the record, my worst-rated film of 2011), or if you’ve seen any two of the above films in sequence, you’d undoubtedly begin to connect the dots, to create a cohesive picture of the way Besson manufactures his movies. I submit that what he’s manufactured is an entirely new subgenre, one for which Besson is both monarch and progenitor. Let’s call it “Lazy Action.”

Lazy Action is defined, foremost, by a super generic plot. The plot, in fact, need only be painted in the broadest strokes. The leading man — who may, by rule, be female — is either CIA or former CIA, or (failing that) has some intimate knowledge or experience within an elite intelligence or military/crime-fighting force.

Besson’s principal skill though — and I’d argue it’s a central tenet of Lazy Action — is demonstrating no actual knowledge (intimate or even “working”) of the subjects in the script itself. Lazy Action scripts are conceived and executed without the aid of internet or modern thesaurus. They are constructed based on memories of formulas and tropes from other action movies, and re-created as closely as possible. Besson’s writing schedule is such that he simply doesn’t have time to engage in tawdry exercises like “research.”

Only in a Lazy Action script would a French criminal and his cohort conduct a business meeting at the Hotel Jugoslavja, in Belgrade, with no apparent connection to the Balkans or Serbia whatsoever. Does the opening sequence or its location have any bearing on the rest of the film at all? Of course not! In Lazy Action, what’s imperative is that the script’s scenes be set in locations that seem like places where they might occur. Have a look at Taken 2 in Instanbul and the “Albanian” terror cell positioned as the film’s villains.

Action itself in Lazy Action, much like setting, owes no debt to reality. Taken 2 got a lot of heat for the preposterous scenario in which Liam Neeson’s character determined his exact location in the city of Istanbul — the world’s second-largest city proper — by computing the decibel levels of grenades he had his daughter hurl onto public rooftops. This was one of the dumbest things I’ve ever seen in a movie. In 3 Days to Kill, Ethan Renner dispatches a series of bad guys by shooting through a roof with pinpoint accuracy. He successfully apprehends a car in Paris on a bicycle. He is shot, point blank, in the chest with a shotgun and does not flinch — He’s wearing a bulletproof vest you guys!!! — and does it while battling the most serious disease there is.

In Lazy Action, that’s all okay. To actually perform the theoretical skills or surmount the theoretically insurmountable odds would be impossible. The goal in this subgenre is to create characters and scenarios that are not only fantastical representations but also ENLARGEMENTS of genre stereotypes. That’s what makes it so lazy. There’s nothing unique or inventive about these scripts. There’s nothing even remotely detailed.

Counterpoint: As crazy as the things are that Ethan Hunt and his team do in the Mission: Impossible movies, at least a) they’re made more feasible by advanced gear, and b) There’s always a higher motive or mystery beyond the action sequences themselves. In Lazy Action, it's mostly just generic fighting and explosions. It’s just noise.

I’ll try not to beat a dead horse, but among the long list of egregious cliches on which Lazy Action relies, 3 Days to Kill employed three with brazen regularity:

—Ethan Renner’s occasional cough to signify serious illness. This man is a dying cancer patient who is actively traipsing around in international espionage circles, discharging firearms, having a blast during interrogation-torture scenarios and engaging (and triumphing) in all manner of hand-to-hand combat. But don’t worry: He coughs every once in a while to remind you that he’s on his last legs, suffering from a rare form of metastatic brain cancer. The cancer, of course, becomes little more than a tag. It’s not like having the disease affects his actions in any concrete way that audiences can see or internalize. At one point, he does watch a home video of his daughter and we intuit that he’s reflecting on his there’s that. But for the most part, the cancer — ostensibly the engine of the movie — is an afterthought.

—Ethan Renner's physically debilitating reaction to the serum medication precisely the moment before confrontation with the enemy. Once again, Renner fights guards and thugs left and right, but the second before he needs to shoot The Wolf, or shoot The Wolf’s henchman — a man known as “The Albino,” though he appears to be just a standard bald Caucasian — he crumples to the ground, his vision suddenly blurry. It’s just so lazy. With no logical, believable way to heighten the action in the shitty script, Besson reverts to the illness or its medication, both of which remain unclear, to further impede his protagonist in moments of crisis.

—Variation on a theme, here: Ethan Renner getting phone calls from his daughter precisely the moment before confrontation with (lower-level) enemies. This is used as a comic device. There's a lot of them (comic devices) in 3 Days to Kill and a few actually hit their mark. I gather, though, that I shouldn’t delve too deeply into Besson’s attempts to inject humor into Lazy Action.

On second thought, it is a subgenre all his own, so he can do whatever the hell he wants with it.

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About The Author

Sam Allard

Sam Allard is the Senior Writer at Scene, in which capacity he covers politics and power and writes about movies when time permits. He's a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and the NEOMFA at Cleveland State. Prior to joining Scene, he was encamped in Sarajevo, Bosnia, on an...
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