Movie Review: ‘3 Days to Kill’ a muddled mess

If it weren’t for the acting, “Three Days to Kill” would be a disaster.

Of course, that’s often the reason we go to the movies – to watch pros like Kevin Costner, Hailee Steinfeld and Connie Nielsen.

And yes, that trio keeps “Three Days” from rolling over and playing dead, which it works terribly hard to do; but even they can’t hold together this shapeless mess that wants to be both a slick, nasty thriller and a tender family drama.

Sadly, it doesn’t manage either very well.

Costner plays Ethan Renner, a CIA veteran who learns he’s terminally ill and retires to spend time with his estranged family – an angry ex-wife (Nielsen) and a teenage daughter he barely knows (Steinfeld).

Even though he promises not to work for the agency again (a family sore point), he caves in when a sultry fellow-operative (Amber Heard) offers him an experimental drug if he’ll go after one final target only he can identify.

Though the film insists briefly on this last point, it’s never clear why Renner himself has to do all the dirty work, including countless cold-blooded killings. “Three Days” mines some mild comic mileage from the contrast between Renner’s vicious day job and his newfound family fuzzies; but for the most part, the violence spoils this film’s attempts at warmth, while the plot just keeps getting more and more ridiculous.

Among other things, guns appear and disappear at random depending on whether director Joseph McGinty “McG” Nichol wants to switch to a fist-fight, while numerous characters squander opportunities to finish off their victims.

One example: If there’s a man you want to kill in the car ahead of you, wouldn’t you just pull up alongside and shoot him? Instead, Renner bumps him from behind, as if to say, “Time for a car chase!”

The tale is so riddled with nonsense like this that we finally stop caring about the spy-thriller plot; and the business with Heard, a siren who hints at wanting to seduce Renner, makes so little sense, and clashes so badly with the rest of the film, that it’s almost surreal.

The script takes a similarly haphazard approach to Renner’s efforts at healing the breach with his wife and daughter; but Costner, Nielsen and especially Steinfeld (terrific in “True Grit”) bring so much vitality to these moments that the movie gets up on its feet for a while; certainly the ending and the bike-riding scene pull on what’s left of our heartstrings after nearly two hours of befuddled restlessness.

With a lot more work, this could have been a solid, late-career vehicle for Costner, who’s remarkably believable as a skilled assassin, a caring father and an aging cancer victim.

But please … not all at the same time.

2 stars out of 4.

Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some sensuality and language.