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Review: '3 Days to Kill' a spy thriller with faulty aim

EntertainmentMoviesPoliticsEspionage and IntelligenceMcGKevin CostnerHailee Steinfeld

Is McG going soft on us? Has the director behind so much of the 21st century's over-the-top action — from the light froth of his "Charlie's Angels" reboot to the post-apocalyptic dark of "Terminator Salvation" — tapped into a more sentimental side?

"3 Days to Kill," starring Kevin Costner, Hailee Steinfeld and Amber Heard, certainly suggests a different emotional temperature. McG is a filmmaker in transition, mixing metaphors, genres and feelings in this action-thriller, espionage-comedy, family-drama jumble.

The result is a little like baby bear's porridge, neither all bad nor all good, though not quite right yet either. Still, "3 Days to Kill" is not a terrible way to kill a couple of hours.

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Written by Luc Besson and Adi Hasak, the film comes with many of Besson's trademarks — lots of firepower and sexy women with guns of the type showcased early on in 1990's "La Femme Nikita," written and directed by the French filmmaker.

In this case, Heard is wielding the hardware. She is a CIA agent named Vivi being sent to Serbia to eliminate an international terrorist code-named the Wolf (Richard Sammel). The Albino (Tomas Lemarquis) is also headed to Serbia, also a terrorist, but she's to leave him to the veteran agent on the ground, one Ethan Renner (Costner).

Ethan, rumpled and coughing and ultimately collapsing, is definitely not aging well.

Meanwhile, Vivi's conservative looks at Langley are deceiving. Soon enough she's overseas, sporting designer/bondage couture, high-tech weaponry and doing most of her business out of pricey European strip clubs. Congressional oversight be damned.

Ethan, on the other hand, leaves Serbia a mess. The Albino gets away, a hotel is destroyed, and there are quite a few surplus dead bodies to deal with. And that's not his main problem. The hard-bitten spy wakes up in a hospital to a death sentence: Brain cancer, couple of months, get-your-life-in-order time.

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We already know from the voicemail he's left on daughter Zooey's (Steinfeld) phone, there are serious daddy issues back home. But home is Paris, so there is an upside. Good locations for McG to apply lots of his famous polish.

The death sentence might sound maudlin. Instead the target territory is closer to the sniping and shooting that went on between "Mr. & Mrs. Smith," the 2005 assassin-love satire that created Brangelina. Rather than warring spouses, "3 Days" has dad and daughter dancing around all the explosive issues.

Like who can a CIA killer turn to for advice in navigating those turbulent teen waters? A mole? A mob accountant? Where can he get wise counsel? The squatters crowding his Paris apartment?

Ethan does have to deal with the occasional hallucination from the experimental meds Vivi's giving him in trade for his help in taking out the Wolf. But luckily relief is just a few shots of Vodka away. Good news at cocktail parties, bad news in subway stations.

The difficulty for McG is in the juggling act this requires. How to balance a father-daughter reconciliation story with a spy thriller, with a life-and-death medical crisis, with a farce? This is where the film's many fraying edges are exposed.

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There are moments between Ethan and Zooey that feel like the real deal, and Costner and Steinfeld have a good chemistry. But the film goes wildly overboard on the problem front, packing every possible teen girl quandary into a few days, from learning to ride a bike to date-rape drugs, no kidding.

There are times the Wolf hunt gets intense with all the requisite spy game maneuvering and bang-bang-pow, the shattered glass and bloodied bodies falling with a stylized grace.

But McG keeps hamming up the farce, allowing it to grab all the attention like an obnoxious teenage thug. The absurd takes so many shapes and shows up around so many corners, it's just too much.

Then before you can decide whether to laugh or groan, the movie shifts into sentimental mode for some sweet or sad moment between Ethan and Zooey, including gooey flashbacks of her childhood complete with carnival rides, beaches and nothing but smiles.

The film is helped by Costner's self-deprecating, aw-shucks charm. The actor is game whether he's being asked to fight off truculent teens or treacherous terrorists or patch up Zooey's boy problems. From his Oscar wins for "Dances With Wolves" to his sweetheart turn in "The Bodyguard" to his washed-up golf pro in "Tin Cup," Costner understands his strengths and plays to all of them at times here.

Now if McG could just figure out his sweet spot, or at least limit the number he's going for in any given film, he might improve his game too.

betsy.sharkey@latimes.com

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'3 Days to Kill'

MPAA rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some sensuality and language

Running time: 1 hour, 53 minutes

Playing: In general release

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EntertainmentMoviesPoliticsEspionage and IntelligenceMcGKevin CostnerHailee Steinfeld
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