In 1990, the same year that Kevin Costner released the massive global hit Dances with Wolves, a curious thing happened in France. The name Kevin became the country’s most popular for new babies, a Gaelic moniker edging out national stalwarts like Antoine and Jules. Imagine if everyone in America suddenly named their son Pierre.
During the stretch where Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and The Bodyguard conquered the world -- each making more abroad than they did at home -- one in 10 petits hommes was christened Kevin. Which means that while Americans have forgotten they once loved Kevin Costner, the French never can.
Knowing that, it makes sense that Costner’s latest, 3 Days to Kill, takes place in Paris. Costner plays Ethan Renner, a worn-out CIA assassin who’s spent his life hunting baddies with comic book names like The Albino and The Wolf. (At least the former is played by real-life albino Tomas Lemarquis of the very good Icelandic film Noi the Albino -- please someone cast him for something other than being pale.) Before the credits, Costner kills a half-dozen people and is then diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, as if fate feels it must balance the score to appease the widows of the deceased.
Costner will leave behind his own widow (Connie Nielsen), though, truthfully, he widowed her a decade before by choosing work over marriage. There’s also an estranged teen daughter named Zoey (Hailee Steinfeld) who couldn’t look less like her blond, blue-eyed parents if she’d popped out of the womb with green skin and wings.
No matter. 3 Days to Kill was directed by McG, who wouldn’t know the definition of coherence if Charlie’s Angels grabbed his attention by wearing hot pants and then defined it for him slowly. That’s not necessarily a dis. I sometimes enjoy a scattershot McG action/comedy/romance/drama, as it’s the closest our era has to witnessing the audience-pleasing ambitions of a William Wyler, if Wyler had first gotten drunk on Bud Light Lime.
Kill is a singular mess, at once a drama about a man confronting his pending death, a romance about reconciling with his ex, a comedy about his clueless attempts to connect with his daughter, and a sci-fi action flick where a leather-corset-clad Amber Heard pops up with an expensive experimental cancer treatment she’s willing to give him if he comes out of retirement to torture and kill another dozen or so crooks. And I haven’t even gotten to the seven Malian immigrants illegally yet unevictably squatting in his rarely used flat, and the tender moment when a young mother clutches her newborn daughter and announces she’s going to name her Ethan. I guess even Kevin is passé.
Of course, the movie doesn’t work. But Costner does. No matter now nonsensical and uneven 3 Days to Kill gets, he’s miraculously consistent: a man’s man and lady’s hero who leaps over every tonal hurdle without ever giving a cheap, “Yeah, I know this is bunk, but I needed the paycheck” wink to the audience. He’s comfortable flinging his fists in a Parisian bakery fight involving tray of croissants, a jambon slicer, and a broken bottle of Beaujolais. He’s fine playing the ugly American, sneering to Steinfeld’s local boyfriend that he prefers “real football.” (Of the jeans he wears throughout the film, a Frenchman snorts, “He comes from Brokeback Mountain.”) Costner’s so good he’s almost a throwback to John Wayne and Jimmy Cagney, talents who did some of their best work simply trying to rise above the material.
This might be exactly the role Costner needs to remind us that he’s the rare actor who can do everything. Watching him shoot the guy, drive the car, kiss the babe, and teach the kid to ride a bike, we understand why a generation of French boys bears the name Kevin. Perhaps the next generation will, too.