Ask me three months ago, and I'd have said it was no surprise at all that Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit would be the best action movie starring Kevin Costner to be released in the first quarter of 2014. Ask me right after I saw Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, and I'd have said it was a goddamn impossibility. But here we are, and 3 Days to Kill exists, and boy is it ever a piece of shit.

As produced by Luc Besson's Parisian Thriller & Growling Papa Bear factory, it comes as little surprise to find that 3DtK features Costner as a spy with an ex-wife and a resentful teenage daughter, presently living in the City of Lights, under the never-clarified presumption that the ex is herself French, even though she kind of reads as American; she is, luckily, played by Connie Nielsen, the patron saint of people who are presumably European despite reading as American. The daughter is played by Hailee Steinfeld, whose post-Oscar nomination career is not going the way I imagine that she hoped for. In this particular instance, the spy is suffering from brain cancer that has metastasized into his lungs, and the prognosis is three to five months, though based on the coughing, the frequent blackouts, and the bloody noses, one gets the impression that his doctor was being kind. He - and to give him his right name, so we don't keep getting bogged down in pronouns, it's Ethan Renner - has quit working for the CIA in the wake of an epically botched attempt to capture an arms dealer and his hatchet man, respectively The Wolf (Richard Sammel) and The Albino (TΓ³mas Lemarquis), and hopes to reconnect with the only people he ever loved before fucking it all up. But no sooner does he arrive in Paris than the CIA finds him, in the form of a sexy lady agent whose name is not an anagram of Satan only because even Luc Besson has heard of restraint. Played by Amber Heard with the sexual sophistication of a Nazi Panzerdivision, Vivi Delay is pitched as a literal devil figure (in one scene, she's standing in a featureless room bathed in blood red lighting), demanding that Ethan continue his quest to take down The Wolf and The Albino despite promising his ex, Christine, that he's done with that life. In exchange, Vivi can offer him a life-saving drug to allow him more time spent with his newly rebuilding family. So it turns out to be, as God is my witness, an adaptation of the Faust legend. Produced and co-written by Luc Besson. Starring Kevin Costner as a CIA agent. Truly, we live in blessed times.

The problem with 3DtK, or the creative genius, if you're of a mind to go there, is that it wants to be three genres all at once, but it only really has space for two. There is, most obviously, the traditional "super-tough badass storming through a European capital and punching righteousness right into a colorful assortment of ethnics" movie on the model of Taken; there is, only somewhat unexpectedly, a comically over-the-top parody of the same, with situations and characters too absurd to take as serious; there is also, dubiously, a sober family drama about a man trying desperately to regain his dignity and honor as a member of a functioning family even as The Life tries to pull him back in, in the form of Heard trying to eye-fuck him into a coma.

No, hold on, the problem isn't that the film has all of these things going on at once, the problem is that regardless of how many genres the script is trying to mash together in some kind of Gallic fantasia of guns and manly tears, director McG is only remotely interested in one of them, and so even when the film is attempting to serious and engaged with the central family dynamic - even moreso when it's at its most frivolously comic-seeming - he insistently manhandles it into the glowering action tones that can be mustered, despite the action movie leg of the film being, perhaps surprisingly, the least prominent of the three (frequently inserted with particularly crude abandon; there is a set piece in a delicatessen which ramps up so arbitrarily and suddenly that I legitimately thought that it was a dream sequence at first).

Even without being directed with no sense of proportion or finesse, there's plenty of idiotic dross in the script: a family of African squatters hiding in Ethan's Paris flat show up for no reason other than provide some immensely strained parallel narrative of fatherhood (something done to much greater effect anyway with a Serbian limo service operator played by Marc AndrΓ©oni, whose frequent beatings at Ethan's hands are always the occasion for some subsequent fatherly wisdom - this is the one part of the film where the comic underlayment manages to poke through enough that it's actually funny), insert not just one but a whole family of Magical Negroes into the action, and facilitate some remarkably self-loathing jokes about the French bureaucracy; there's an interlude at a tattoo parlor that serves no narrative function and plays like a scene from the straight people version of Cruising. And every time Agent Satan shows up, the film screams to an abrupt halt, puking and moaning, though how much of that is the character and how she's worked into the story, and how much is Heard's unfathomably bad performance, it's hard to say.

Some fringes of life try to force themselves out: Costner's gruff, craggy "lung cancer" voice sounds not unlike Christian Bale's Batman doing an impression of Walter Matthau, and his relentlessly sullen body language veers straight into So Bad It's Good territory, but at least that helps us see the outline of the warped dark farce that a better version of 3 Days to Kill might have been. Steinfeld tries real damn hard to put over a character who is half-prop and half-contrivance, recognising maybe that she only has so many chances to make an impression before she ends up in whatever dank hole claimed Saoirse Ronan's career. Some of the action scenes are good: the opening sequence especially, depicting a CIA sting gone bad, is well-choreographed, and feels like it takes place in a physical world where there are consequences to actions, something that absolutely does not happen again later, as Ethan chases his targets around in one of the most sleepily-edited car chase scenes in modern memory, where things are destroyed less to cause an impact and more to wake the viewer up.

It really is, all told, a truly dismal experience, a cold fish of a movie whose sense of comedy and energy are both suggest by its heavy reliance on the rousing chorus of synthpop anthem "I Love It" as a repeated, nominally humorous beats (it's Ethan's ringtone - takes too long to explain it). All in all, the film fails so completely on every one of the disparate levels it's trying to land on, and ends up being so much of a wandering, ill-tempered slog that even calling it a big dumb action movie promises something vastly more entertaining and pleasantly frivolous than we get.

2/10