Ethan Renner (Kevin Costner) has spent all his adult life working undercover for the CIA. He’s done it all. In between, he managed to find a wife, Christine (Connie Nielsen), and have a daughter, Zoey (the Oscar-nominated Hailee Steinfeld) by her, but the deeper he got into his “black ops,” the more he felt he was endangering them by having anything to do with them. So he just sort of stayed away from them. Oh, he’d call his daughter on her birthday — on a secure phone, of course. And, pathetically, he’d sit and watch old videos of her when she was a young child, sitting in his hotel room alone in some faraway “killing zone” where he risked losing his very humanity. What price service to country?
Now Ethan is very sick. Terminal cancer has already spread to the brain and lungs. Nevertheless, the CIA still isn’t ready to let go of him, because he’s now even more valuable: an agent who could put himself at extreme risk because he has nothing to lose. Ethan tries to tell them he’s done, and goes home, to Paris, where he left his wife and daughter, supposedly in relative safety. And he tries, in his stumbling, awkward way, to re-enter their lives, but of course it’s not that easy. Christine is busy with some high-powered job that takes her out of the country for several days at a time. And Zoey, now a teenager, is far too accustomed to doing exactly what she wants. And she has a little too much of her daddy’s “bad to the bone” genes to behave herself when she thinks nobody’s looking.
Now that we’ve established Ethan’s “old life” of cloak-and-dagger underworld, and his “new life” of trying to actually parent his teenage daughter, we proceed to mix the two, and with predictably mixed results. The CIA reaches out to him with a new agent, old-style provocateur/seductress Vivi (Amber Heard) whose unabashed blandishments don’t really work on our “seen-it-all-already” grizzled veteran, but her offer of a new “experimental drug” for his cancer gets his attention. He reluctantly agrees to help with one last caper, mainly because he realizes he is the only one left who can actually identify the deep-undercover bad guy kingpin. But in the middle of a stakeout, or even an interrogation, Ethan will receive a phone call from his daughter about meeting her at the park, and he’ll just stop what he’s doing and go meet her. He finds his “safe place” apartment full of squatters from Africa, and when he finds out the French have laws protecting them during the winter, he finally decides to just let them stay there. That provides both ironic comedic moments — it’s hard to interrogate a guy in the bathroom while the baby’s crying in the hallway — but also some of the film’s most tender moments, when the squatter family names their new baby after Ethan. He’s genuinely touched.
Oh sure, he gets to use his “badass” skills to rescue his daughter from the clutches of thugs, but then he also gets to teach her to dance. And, belatedly, to ride a bike. The result is a kind of hodgepodge family melodrama/action movie, but somehow the quality acting holds it together, including the recently maligned Costner. Sure, he’s always the hero. But at least this time he’s a convincingly wounded and vulnerable one. Not to mention one who never gives up trying to be the good family man he never was. Gotta like the guy for trying so hard. Gotta like the guy who repents at the end—remember the thief on the cross? (Luke 23:39-43)
Ronald P. Salfen is the minister at St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.