There's no necessary contradiction between action films and parenting. As far back as 1986's Aliens, James Cameron welded them together seamlessly. The script presented Sigourney Weaver's Ripley with a small child in need of care and protection, and the ensuing maternal bond gave emotional propulsion to the fear, savagery, and carnage that followed. "Save the baby" provides the mother with all the justification needed for extreme violence—a perfect setup for a Hollywood special-effects extravaganza.
The new Kevin Costner film, 3 Days to Kill, is also an action film with parenting themes—but with one major difference. The parent here is not a mom, but rather schlubby, aging secret service super-spy Ethan (Costner) as a long-absent father trying to get back in touch with his daughter Zoey (Hailee Steinfeld). Rather than fueling the adrenalin rush with child-in-danger, the incongruity of an action-hero dad needing to deal with domestic crises like bad-hair days sends the script lurching back and forth almost at random. Cold-blooded murders are juxtaposed with cutesy dad-daughter moments; a CIA agent morphs into a fetish dominatrix; there's a cancer diagnosis and then an almost instant reprieve. The goofiness is supposed to be funny, but personally, as a dad who does a lot of child care, the repetitive joke "he's got a job … and he has to watch the kid too!" gets kind of sour over an hour and a half.
There have been plenty of other dads-with-guns action-adventures, obviously. The recent Homefront, as one example, used the threat to Jason Statham's daughter as a straightforward excuse for action: simple, easy, no fuss, and little if any emotional investment. 3 Days to Kill, though, really cares about its parental themes, with neurotic and bizarre results. The film obsesses over how, or whether, Ethan's relationship with his daughter will unman him.
When he comes back to his apartment in Paris, for example, he finds a family of Somali immigrants has improbably occupied his house: Suddenly the bachelor pad comes with foreign family, complete with pregnant wife, cute spunky kid, and in-laws. The dad has even painted Ethan's room yellow, a color Ethan angrily and somewhat nervously denounces as too feminine. Along the same lines, after being diagnosed with brain cancer, the secret experimental cure comes in the form of a giant injection administered to him by his superior, Vivi (Amber Heard). She treats each oh-so-phallic shot as a dominatrix double-entendre chance to top her boy, as she occasionally calls him.
Vivi is herself young enough to be Ethan's daughter, and he is stoically impervious to her attempted seductions, whether they involve leather skirts or hot red lipstick or a business meeting conducted in front of an erotic lesbian floor show. Still, the flamboyance of those seductions, and the insistence on Ethan’s imperviousness, feels more than a little desperate. It's like the film needs to convince us that the aging Costner could screw a starlet less than half his age if he wanted to, no, really, he absolutely could.
The gun fights and carnage have a similar purpose. As with Ethan’s rejections of Vivi, Ethan's promises to retire—thwarted by the convoluted efforts of the plot to give him some reason, any reason, to keep picking up the gun—are pretty transparently false. We want to see Amber Heard in leather, we want to see things blow up, and Ethan does too. So sex and violence are used to assure that our hero is a man, even if his room is painted yellow, even if he teaches his daughter to dance.
You wouldn't think you'd need spike heels, a brain tumor, and gouts of blood just to tell your child you love her. But being a man is a delicate thing, according to the film; it requires a lot of encouragement. One of the last lines is Zoey asking her mom if Ethan's a badass, and her mom saying that yes, well, he's done lots of things. It's an odd conversation, since Zoey's seen Ethan beat up multiple assailants, and she was in the building when he shot like 20 guys in the climactic showdown (okay, she was in another room, but presumably someone would have told her.)
But the question isn't really for her benefit, but for Ethan's. Ripley can be a badass by being a mom and protecting the kid, but for guys that's not enough—they have to go off and do things, and, more, get credit for either doing them or (as with Vivi) have the option of doing them if they wanted. Ethan essentially spends the whole film running from that giant, loathsome Alien femininity, terrified that it will infect him. Eventually, we're supposed to believe he manages to face it—he kills enough people and has Vivi throw herself at him enough that he can settle into domestic bliss assured of his own incorruptible studliness. No matter what he tells himself, though, Ripley could still kick his ass.
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