Why Isn't 3 Days To Kill The New Taken?
Both Taken and 3 Days To Kill star respected (if under-appreciated) and seasoned movie stars who have played action roles before but are not/were not necessarily thought of as badasses. Both films feature as protagonists recently retired covert operatives now struggling to reconnect with the families they left behind in order to do their jobs.
Both films push the envelope of PG-13 violence and both films are products of Luc Besson's EuropaCorp shingle, a McFactory specializing in slickly-made, vaguely European-feeling, lowest common denominator action narratives (The Transporter franchise, From Paris With Love, Lock-Out, Colombiana) that somehow manage to attract A-list talent to scripts we would just as easily expect to see going straight-to-video and starring Jason Statham, Dolph Lundgren, Cuba Gooding Jr, Scott Adkins, Michael Jai White, Steven Seagal or Steve Austin.
In so many ways, Taken and 3 Days To Kill could not be more similar...and yet one grossed $227 million on a reported production budget of $25 million and launched a still-going-strong franchise and the other has essentially fizzled with $21 million and counting on a reported production budget of $28 million.
Why? Did Taken have a better and/or more marketable, brand-name director than 3 Days To Kill? Nope. Taken was made by Frenchman Pierre Morel, a veteran action cinematographer but a then virtual unknown filmmaker on his sophomore effort. 3 Days To Kill was helmed by prolific McG, who through his Wonderland Sound and Vision shingle has been closely involved with pop culture hits like Supernatural, Chuck, Nikita, The O.C. and who burst onto the screen as a director with that very successful cinematic abortion known as Charlie's Angels.
Of course, McG isn't far removed from Michael Bay and M. Night Shyamalan in terms of being a helmer of several influential popcorn hits who is nevertheless openly mocked and held in contempt by critics and audiences alike. It's possible that McG's involvement actually hurt 3 Days To Kill, and let's be honest, the guy is asking for it with a name like that. How can you expect to be taken seriously as a filmmaker in any context when your chosen professional name sounds like a drunken late night fast food mistake that will haunt you body and soul for the foreseeable future?
The guy actually isn't without talent. 3 Days To Kill opens with a fun, economical and stylish opening sequence that delivers some exciting action and establishes the principals and key conflicts before cutting to an energetic title sequence...but when "A McG Film" pops up on the screen, it takes every ounce of control that can possibly be fathomed not to burst into wild giggles. Regardless, having McG at the helm isn't enough to justify the wide disparity between the success of Taken and the relative lack thereof of 3 Days To Kill.
Did Taken have a better script? No. Actually, despite the fact that 3 Days To Kill is written by Adi Hasak, whose only other produced credits consist of two of the worst, most openly cliche-ridden films I've ever seen--Shadow Conspiracy and From Paris With Love--it's a better and more creative and tonally ambitious script than Taken.
Whereas Taken is a ninety-minute straight shot that perfunctorily establishes one-dimensional characters in the first ten minutes before piling on tense run-by shootings and car chases for the remainder of the film, 3 Days To Kill attempts to blend varying shades of comedy with drama, action, and tonal and cultural flourishes. It also takes time to develop multiple affecting (if perhaps occasionally on-the-nose) subplots that reveal and develop character. It has a playfulness and panache that Taken doesn't even attempt. It also has a slightly more intricate central plot, though it loses points for employing murkily-motivated, borderline cartoon villains.
Is the acting/casting better in Taken than in 3 Days To Kill? Again, no. Liam Neeson is appealing and tons of fun to watch in the role of Bryan Mills, but Kevin Costner gives a much more involving performance and creates a measurably more dimensional character. Also, Costner's casting is even more inspired because it allows him to fuse into one role the heretofore divergent cornerstones of his star persona: the classical all-American decency glimpsed in Bull Durham, The Untouchables, Field of Dream, Dances With Wolves, Tip Cup, Thirteen Days, Man of Steel, etcetera with the dark, devilish and volatile antihero seen in A Perfect World, 3000 Miles To Graceland and Mr. Brooks. In 3 Days To Kill, Costner gets to tap both veins and we get to watch as they compete for dominance in his persona; there's a measurable dialectic between the man he has been and the man he is trying to be. Seeing him go into badass mode is undeniably fun, though no scene in 3 Days To Kill tops the Costner badass quotient seen below:
Furthermore, whereas Bryan Mills is basically just a vengeful wrecking ball waiting to be turned loose, Costner's Ethan Renner is a man facing his own mortality and the realization that he is months away from losing his family for a second and final time. He's constantly questioning the choices he made in his life--namely to throw his loyalty to Uncle Sam rather than his own family--and he is constantly torn between his propensity for anger, bitterness and ruthlessness and his capacity to be compassionate and value human life.
Renner is also more of an underdog and the script throws more obstacles and conflict at him than Taken lobs at Mills. Renner is suffering from a degenerative illness that causes him to black out and hyperventilate at inopportune times, and whereas all Mills has to do is shoot and maim anyone who gets in the way of him finding his daughter, Renner has to identify and take down a notorious terrorist while simultaneously trying to reconnect with the teenage firecracker daughter who hates him and hide from his estranged wife the fact that he is still working for the agency on one last assignment.
So where is it that 3 Days To Kill drops the ball? Well for one thing, it criminally wastes Connie Nielsen, a fine and diverse actress who deserved much more screen time. It also seriously under-develops the second-billed role of Vivi, Renner's handler, played by Amber Heard. It's clear that Vivi is meant to be something of an enigmatic character, but an enigma still needs to provide enough grounding context to orient an audience, and the creative team here doesn't do that.
She's a fun presence in the movie...she slices through the narrative like the shark in Jaws...but doesn't have enough to do, and the script never totally sells why she needs Ethan to find the terrorist villain rather than just doing so herself, particularly given that she always seems neck-and-neck with Ethan and is shown to be more than capable of pulling a trigger on her own.
The script also unceremoniously abandons some of its more distinctive and fun elements midway through the story. There is a running subplot involving a garishly purple bike that Renner buys his daughter Zoe as a please-forgive-me-and-love-me-again gift because she loved purple when she was a little girl.
Renner is shown to be amusingly attached to the bike, even riding it through the streets of Paris himself after Zoe initially throws it in his face. In a scene where Vivi pops up out of the blue and whisks Renner away to another location, he says repeatedly "My bike comes with me," forcing Vivi's rent-a-grunt to bring it along. Later on in the story, Renner learns that Zoe cannot even ride a bike because he was never around to teach her. In a touching and effective (if obvious) sequence, Renner finally teaches her how to ride and that iconic ritual of American parenthood finally brings them together and cathartic tears are shed by all. Certain audience members including yours truly even got somewhat misty-eyed by the exchange.
But then, Renner uses the bike as an aid in kidnapping a bad guy from an armed convoy and leaves the bike bruised and abandoned on the street. There isn't even a moment after where he remarks upon and/or we see that he is upset or pissed off at having lost the bike, which is now not even his to lose anyway and which represents the embodiment of his mending relationship with Zoe. That's a bad creative choice.
The script also features a mildly shocking twist at the climax but then fails to deal with the ramifications of it. The climax also feels truncated and slightly skimpy on action, particularly when compared with Taken; it should have gone bigger in order to compete with Taken if nothing else.
Taken also has a more marketable title, had a much more inspired ad campaign and featured a simpler and more immediate premise and emotional hook: a father moving heaven and earth to save his daughter from the scum who took her. Audiences instantly connected with that idea, as familiar as it was, and there was a clear wish fulfillment angle at work--we all wish we could protect our loved ones using Bryan Mills' very particular set of skills. The plot of 3 Days To Kill is less crystallized and audiences evidently couldn't connect strongly with the notion of a generic terrorist hunt.
Plus, there may also be some Taken fatigue. It was easy to jump on the zeitgeist-y bandwagon six years ago when Taken came out, but since then Liam Neeson has made Unknown (which, though a mystery, was marketed like and clearly influenced by Taken), Taken 2...which made huge money but was not very well-liked the world over, and, most recently, Non-Stop, with Taken 3 soon to begin production. Maybe people stayed away from 3 Days To Kill because they felt like they had already seen it before. This is an understandable reaction, especially given that almost identical creative teams are responsible for both films, but it's also sad, because Costner really makes the movie worth watching and he deserves to be celebrated in the same way that Neeson was for Taken.
Costner has made some less-than-perfect films (so has Liam Neeson by the way, along with every other movie star who has ever lived), but his choices have always been interesting and unusual and, along with Denzel Washington, Robert Redford and a very small club of others, he is one of the only stars that doesn't owe his status to a franchise and has never made a sequel. He doesn't do showy, obviously transformative parts like a Daniel-Day Lewis, but he can move fluidly between genres, is hugely charismatic, displays a charming and profound belief in the magic of movies and always values his audience. He's criminally underrated as a leading man and character actor and filmmaker.
Regardless of whether or not you find yourself swayed to give Costner and 3 Days To Kill some late box office love, you have to admit that comparing Taken and 3 Days To Kill as case studies yields some fascinating results. The lesson here is an obvious but still oft-forgotten one: if you want to make it in mainstream Hollywood, you don't necessarily have to make good films, you just have to make marketable ones.