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Kevin Costner's got a gun, but not much else to work with, in 3 Days to Kill. PHOTO: Julian Torres, 3DTK inc./Relativity Media

Kevin got his gun (but not much else to work with) in 3 Days to Kill.
PHOTO: Julian Torres, 3DTK inc./Relativity Media

Kevin Costner has starred in his share of action films — No Way Out and Waterworld come to mind — but there’s this nagging sense that his new shoot-’em-up, 3 Days to Kill, is Costner’s attempt to “pull a Liam Neeson” — that is, to supercharge his career at midlife by starring in an over-the-top chase flick, as Neeson did with Taken in 2008.

Like Neeson (an ex-forklift operator), Costner (the son of a ditchdigger) is mostly beloved for his roles as an endearingly rough-edged everyman. The wise veteran ballplayer of Bull Durham; the thoughtful farmer of Field of Dreams; the idealistic lawman in The Untouchables and J.F.K.these are the parts that made Costner, 59, the perfect Hollywood hybrid: a man’s man and a woman’s dreamboat.

Neeson’s Taken was written by Luc Besson, so it’s no surprise that Costner’s 3 Days to Kill was penned by the same guy — a writer who never lets the laws of physics or human endurance get in the way of a good plot twist. Like Taken, 3 Days to Kill unfolds in Paris — or rather an alternate-reality Paris where a character can turn a corner on Montmartre and arrive in a colonnade at the Louvre.

Besson’s script does capitalize on some Classic Costner Qualities: Kevin plays a CIA hitman named Ethan Renner who, informed he’s dying of cancer, heads to Paris to reconnect with the wife and teenage daughter he had so often left behind to go off and, you know, kill people.

Before he can close that loop, however, Ethan finds himself embroiled in one last job. He spends three days tracking down the villain, torturing informants and dispatching henchmen — a cell phone pressed to his ear the entire time, allowing him to counsel his daughter on hair styles and dating options.

It’s at these moments — when we see the all-in-a-day’s-work ethic of Ethan and his fellow underworld denizens — that 3 Days to Kill becomes great fun. Such scenes also give us a glimpse of how good the movie could have been. Having duct-taped an Italian mob accountant to a toilet in preparation for what looks to be a brutal interrogation, Ethan has the guy call his daughter and recite his mother’s spaghetti-sauce recipe. In another memorable bit, Ethan beats up a mobster so often that when Ethan drives up to him a final time, the guy simply sighs, loosens his tie and climbs into the trunk.

Amber Heard is watching Kevin Costner. PHOTO: Julian Torres  3DTK Inc./Relativity Media

Amber Heard is watching Kevin Costner; will you?
PHOTO: Julian Torres 3DTK Inc./Relativity Media

Fun as those moments are, 3 Days to Kill has another, quite awful, movie spliced into its middle. Amber Heard plays a CIA operative who in the first scene (an awkwardly staged gush of plot exposition) is told to go to Paris to kill some guy named The Wolf. At the CIA’s Langley headquarters, she’s an office drone with her hair in a prim bun. The next time we see her, she’s clad in leather and driving a six-figure sports car through Paris, where one wall of her Catwoman-style lair resembles the main tank of the Baltimore Aquarium. Looks like Congress hasn’t put a dent in the Agency’s operating budget.

Amber coerces Ethan into helping her get The Wolf by promising him a new wonder drug that will cure his cancer. Of course, this isn’t one of those sissy drugs that gets dripped into your veins at an oncologist’s office. No, Heard produces from under her car seat a syringe that resembles a turkey baster with a nail at one end. She jams it into Ethan’s arm and, wouldn’t you know it, he starts to feel better!
But the new drug has a nasty side effect: Whenever your heart rate increases, it causes you to fall to the floor and flop like a fish. Not ideal for a guy who will spend the better part of the film’s two hours in mortal hand-to-hand combat. Thank goodness the side effect kicks in only when the plot requires it — usually when Ethan’s got the bad guy cornered in one of those “I-should-shoot-you-now-but-let’s-wait-to-see­-what-happens-next” moments.

So the bad parts of 3 Days to Kill are spectacularly bad, but Costner proves time and again why he’s earned his superstar status. His working-stiff persona keeps this film as grounded as it can get, and the moments when he opens his heart to his wife and daughter are genuinely affecting.

We haven’t seen enough of Costner in the past few years. In his small role as Clark Kent’s father, he was the stoic heart of last year’s Man of Steel. As the seen-it-all mentor in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, he made us long to see him, not Chris Pine, in the lead role. Next month comes another star turn for Costner as an NFL executive in Draft Day; later this year he plays a grieving widower in Black and White and a small-time California track coach in McFarland.

Those sound like the kinds of Kevin Costner roles we’ve always treasured. The next time he picks up a gun, though, let’s hope the script doesn’t have so many holes shot through it.

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