Tuesday 24 June 2014

Three Days To Kill

Running Up That Kill

Three Days To Kill
2014 USA/France/Greece/Russia
Directed by McG
Playing at UK cinemas now.

Three months ago my cousin, who lives in Australia these days, saw Three Days To Kill at his local cinema and told me to go see it. To be honest, that’s the only reason I went because the trailers for films of this nature tend to look dire, whether the movie’s good or not, and the marketing on this one was no exception. I wondered why it had such a delay getting a release over here but now I’ve got a flavour of some of the reviews I’ve skimmed I see that... well, it’s not a very well thought of movie. Even Mark Kermode had a lot of bad things to say about both the film and its director which... well... this kind of reaction explains the delayed release to some extent, I guess.

One of my goals in writing this review is to partially dispel some of those ideas because, frankly, like my cousin, I had a fun time with this film.

Okay, so I much prefer Luc Besson when he’s sitting in the director's chair but, over the last ten years or so, he’s turned his hand more to writing action stories and then producing them for other directors, for the most part. He’s had a string of hits with these and I have to admit, although they are pretty much exclusively big, dumb action movies, they are almost all done extremely well and, as long as you go into the auditorium knowing the kind of film you’re going to see up front, you’ll probably have a fair time with the majority of the films he’s produced in this fashion.

This one is put together by a director who seems to have fallen from grace in his native Hollywood in recent years but he’s an artist who I happen to like a lot. McG is perhaps best defined by two action movies which, for me, ticked all the right boxes, Charlie’s Angels and Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle (and if you’re going to watch that second one right, watch the US unrated extended edition rather than the toned down version we got in the cinemas). These were both absolute masterpieces and if you’ve never seen either of them and you’re a fan of colourful, escapist fair with no hint of realism clogging up the story and getting in the way, then you really should make an effort to go see those two. Similarly, and I know this is going to be an unpopular statement, I think his Terminator: Salvation is about the only decent sequel to James Cameron’s original movie... there, I’ve said it, think what you will.

One of the reasons I like this director, and I see it here again on this film, is that I think he’s ahead of his time (or possibly just in tune more with his time) than a lot of people who go to modern action films tend to expect or make allowances for in the current cinematic climate. And I am talking about technique here rather than anything else because, you see, Three Days To Kill follows exactly the same path as all the previous Besson written and produced films... it’s big... it’s dumb... and in addition it has a fair few shortcomings in scripting, or at least what ended up there on the screen. It is, however, contrary to a review of it I quickly glanced at prior to seeing this myself, far from dreary or boring.

It has a thriller plot which is fairly standard. Ex-husband and estranged father to his teenage daughter... Ethan Renner, played very competently and amusingly by Kevin Costner, is a CIA hit man who is forced to leave the service after a big job goes sour and it’s found he’s dying of a rare disease. So he tries to make peace with his past errors and reintroduce himself into his daughter and ex-wife's life just when, as will always happen in movie land, he is given an experimental new drug which could get rid of his death sentence in exchange for one last mission for the CIA... a mission run by the lovely Amber Heard, as the improbable but sexily cool creation Vivi Delay (no I’m not making this up and this should tip you off to the kind of movie this is). Laughs and action then ensue as Ethan kills and interrogates his way to the one man he’s after while fighting off weird hallucinogenic side effects of the drug he’s on and trying to keep everything secret from his ex-wife and daughter. 

Now there are some problems with this movie. My main issues were as follows... 

There are a fair few too many “quality time” montages in here. It’s like there’s some extra padding in the movie when it really doesn’t need it. It seems to be pretty good doing its own thing without these extended kinds of sessions... at least that’s how it looked to me. Also, the timelines don’t quite add up. The movie uses the season of Christmas at the end to illustrate certain things about the main character in a shorthand kind of way but... it doesn’t quite tie in with the fact that the main character needs yet another syringe full of life extending drug. Not quite sure what message the writers wanted me to take away from that last bit, to be honest.

One last thing is that it is very predictable but... that’s not so much of a problem with this kind of film. Big dumb movie, remember? On the other hand, there are some very interesting components to the narrative flow which I’m guessing may be what is bothering some people but in reality probably shouldn’t.

The pacing and tone of certain characters and scenes aren’t quite a match for each other. For instance, Vivi Delay is basically coming on like an aggressive diva in full femme fatale mode and that’s kind of at odds with all the other characters and, incidentally, with how she is presented in the pre-credits sequence. However, that being said, this is the way real life works sometimes and I found myself enjoying the juxtaposition of these elements. They didn’t really make anything work less for me. I can see how some people might have found the unexpected contrast as something they’re just not used to having to deal with in a cinematic context, however.

The other thing that might have annoyed some critics/audience members, is the fact that it looks like McG is trying to push the editing a little further in terms of the use of scenes and sounds bleeding into each other. In this case, he carries on conversations while flicking between the scene where the conversation is taking place and a scene in the near past or future, backwards and forwards, and some people may find this hard to take on board, is my guess. It’s actually a natural progression, if you think about it, to the kind of overlapping dialogue techniques that Soderbergh was experimenting with in his excellent movie The Limey, in most respects. McG is just pushing the language of film a little more in, I suspect, an equally experimental manner to see if this kind of editing style can be made to cover more ground and give more insight to things on screen in a faster manner. 

When it first began to happen in this movie I was a little disoriented  for a few seconds because I thought the lip synch was out... in fact, I noticed somebody has added it on the Internet Movie Database in the “goofs” section when, in fact, it’s just the opening salvo in this specific style of syntax the director is playing with. All I can say is... cut him some slack because he actually is achieving a purpose in some of these scenes with this style of working and once your mind quickly trains itself to keep up with the perceived anomalies and process them as a new way of reading the visuals and soundtrack, then it actually proves itself to be a legitimate technique to add to the tool box for film... in a not entirely dissimilar way that dropping a number of frames out of a film to jump characters a little way forward may have been first perceived as a dangerously distracting idea when it comes to editing. 

So there’s that.

Also, it has to be said, the film is not dull, the fight and chase scene choreography is often quite interesting and this is the first film I’ve seen in a long while (or ever maybe?) where guns routinely run out of bullets and have to be reloaded quickly without the director trying to make a big dramatic thing out of that. So that was kinda refreshing actually. Added to this are some of McG’s trademark colourfully lit sets and dream-like shot designs, used to highlight a lot of the Vivi Delay scenes to good effect and in contrast with the slightly more grittier, down to earth, lighting style of Ethan’s standard on-the-job environments. Coupled with some pretty great performances by much of the cast, including a solid job by Kevin Costner, an actor who I kinda lost my way with but am quite impressed with again now, because of his performance here, and you have a cracking little action movie which a lot of people would enjoy if they gave it a chance. I know the audience I saw it with were laughing and making “thrilled” noises in all the intended places at any rate. 

So, in conclusion, a big dumb action movie which works well on its own terms and also has a go at pushing the semiotics of the visual and aural elements of filmmaking. Not the best movie out there by a long chalk but certainly a respectable and, frankly, highly entertaining entry into the form of the modern, kinetic motion picture. Maybe take a look sometime?

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