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Writer/director experiments with familiar formula

By Gary Clift

All good action movie fans know the Luc Besson formula. The French writer and director, who got his start with surprisingly Hollywood movies like “La Femme Nikita” and “The Professional,” now has a scheme for making successful shoot ’em ups based in Paris (or at least in Europe) and featuring known but not first-rank American or British stars.

The “Taken” movies, the “Transporter” movies, and “From Paris With Love” are all examples of the Besson movie. But recently he’s been making action movies with strong comic elements. Consider last year’s “The Family” for which he wrote the screenplay.

Following that trajectory is the new Besson movie, “Three Days to Kill,” directed by journeyman McG (of the Charlie’s Angels pictures). This time the star is Kevin Costner, the setting is Paris, and the young woman in jeopardy is Costner’s character’s daughter. And this time they’ve tossed in Amber Heard as a bonus.

Ethan (Costner) is a contract killer who has for a long time worked for the CIA. He is good, but he has a conscience. This means he feels bad about his estrangement from his Paris-dwelling wife and his teenaged daughter Zoey (Hailee Steinfeld). After escaping a botched operation in the Balkans (at the Hotel Yugoslavia), he retires and high-tails it back to his own Paris apartment.

Which he finds has been taken over by a friendly family of squatters. He manages to secure a bedroom and bath for his work. In that bath he tortures or threatens to torture a couple of guys he will be picking up over the next few days.

You see, he goes back to work, this time for a black vinyl jumpsuit-wearing C.I.A. operative who calls herself Vivi (Heard, in a series of outrageous wigs). “You’re not my type,” he tells her, refusing the last job. “I’m everybody’s type,” she insists. But she stops vamping him just long enough to offer him experimental drug injections to fight the cancer he has just discovered he has.

All he has to do to earn more shots of the medicine is identify, locate, and kill an international crook called “The Wolf” whose main operative is a fair-skinned baldy, “The Albino,” who was in the Hotel Yugoslavia shoot out. You see, the tone isn’t realistic. Naming international spooks after dangerous animals went out about “Day of the Jackal.” Naming them after physical features slowed down after Jaws in two of Roger Moore’s James Bond movies.

And all this crud about Ethan trying to catch up at being a father is all too cliché to be taken as realistic spy story stuff. He saves his daughter from gang mauling in a nightclub toilet and, later, teaches her to ride a bike. She keeps interrupting his operations with cell calls. When she calls about a spaghetti sauce recipe, he puts his current torture victim, an Italian, on the phone. “I am Guido,” the guy says. Honest.

Then there’s this about the injections. After each one, Ethan suffers hallucinations, but not the LSD flashbacks Jimmy Buffet was promised. No. These hallucinations can be scotched with a couple of gulps of medicinal vodka. See, this is supposed to be silly.

But Costner doesn’t play for laughs. And the action scenes will bear comparison with the best shoot outs and car chases in the best action movies of the last year.

As a hybrid of light comedy and gritty action, “Three Days to Kill” works fairly well. And the scenes with Heard have enough sting to them to be something more than cute—at one point he is on the floor staring up as she straddles him, and she comments on the view.

Some of the comedy with the daughter is effective. He goes to her principal’s office with her and hears that she hit another girl. “Open hand, or with a fist?” he asks. Later he tells his daughter to tuck her thumb inside her fist if she’s going to hit somebody in the head. That way the thumb won’t be hurt. He’s a guy who could give that advice.

But some of the silliness in “Three Days to Kill” about regaining his daughter’s trust and affection just seems too sweet. Not that we would expect Besson to get the proportions just right as he begins experimenting with his successful but familiar formula.

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