In case you haven’t noticed, Kevin Costner is in the midst of what could be a major career resurgence. Before appearing in this past summer’s Man of Steel, which cast him as Superman’s adoptive father, Jonathan Kent, Costner hadn’t starred in a theatrical feature since 2010’s The Company Men (though he did pop up on the small screen in 2012’s History Channel miniseries Hatfields & McCoys). And before this year’s sudden glut of Costner fare, the actor hadn’t been ubiquitous since the 1990s, a decade that often saw him star in up to three films per year, and one that kicked off with Dances with Wolves, a western that nabbed seven Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director for Costner.
It’s easy to forget that Costner’s industry high point, at least as far as trophies are concerned, remains a historical frontier adventure, since he largely built his popularity around thrillers and sports movies. And now, it’s only natural that the three films spearheading his comeback are two C.I.A. actioners, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit and 3 Days to Kill, and Ivan Reitman’s NFL dramedy Draft Day. All to be released before the end of April, the movies reflect Costner’s enduring professional hallmarks, as well as his unceasing ’Merican interests.
Even before he made his sophomore directorial effort, The Postman, a post-apocalyptic heartland drama that, upon its 1997 release, was called out by The New York Times’s Stephen Holden as being “mawkishly jingoistic,” Costner had long been a flag-waving patriot among Hollywood’s leading men. As a prohibition agent in The Untouchables, a U.S. Navy Lieutenant Commander in No Way Out, a U.S. Naval Aviator in Revenge, a district attorney in JFK, and a former Secret Service Agent in The Bodyguard, Costner had served his country well on screen through the late ’80s and early ’90s. Then, of course, there’s the matter of Costner being baseball cinema’s immortal MVP—the filmic representative of America’s favorite pastime in Bull Durham, Field of Dreams, For Love of the Game, and even The Upside of Anger, in which he portrayed a washed-up ball player turned radio personality. Yet, all of those films, save the latter, were part of a pre-9/11 world where patriotism had a different face—namely, a less menacing one. When it comes to the question of whether or not Costner can remain relevant amid his busy new career phase, the challenge he faces has less to do with his age than it does the arguably dusty ideals he’s long represented.
While he’s always been a more solid star than fine actor, Costner brings genuine gravitas to his supporting turn in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, playing a veteran C.I.A. operative with intel tips as keen as his sharp-shooting skills. But the role is one that’s right up Costner’s nationalistic alley, even allowing him to quote Homeland’s Carrie Mathison almost verbatim: “I’m the guy who makes sure we don’t get hit again.” In 3 Days to Kill, Costner, playing a different C.I.A. agent who, as the title suggests, has a limited window to finish his One Last Job, seems to be going for a certain meta approach. As shown in the film’s Super Bowl TV spot, Costner’s agent, while abroad where he generically “hunts terrorists,” chides his daughter’s boyfriend for comparing soccer to “American football.” “No,” Costner barks. “We play real football.” Doubtless, this is partly intended as a gee-golly joke about Costner’s U-S-of-A generation, but that takes nothing away from the probability that those would be Costner’s own words (indeed, the actor has gone on record saying how much he identifies with his character). And “real,” American football is just what Costner tackles next in Draft Day, which casts him as the hyper-competitive general manager of the Cleveland Browns.
Regarding Costner’s age, while Hollywood remains a youth-obsessed industry, this is one area in which the veteran seems to have an advantage. If we’ve learned anything lately from the Arnolds and Stallones who refuse to put down the glocks, it’s that there’s a definite audience for male, over-the-hill A-listers, who offer a certain nostalgic hubris Costner is plenty equipped to provide. More specifically, Costner, 59, should look to the career revival of Liam Neeson, 61, as a promising sign. Just as Costner was stuck making dead-in-the-water flicks like The Guardian, Mr. Brooks, and Swing Vote, Neeson had also hit a middle-aged downturn, following Batman Begins with duds like The Other Man and Seraphim Falls. And then Taken happened. A huge success, Taken was Neeson’s definitive renaissance vehicle, and it had the same trigger-happy, international flair of Costner’s latest. What’s more, 3 Days to Kill is co-penned by none other than Luc Besson, who brought Taken to the screen as producer and co-writer. Costner has two other major films set for release this year (the racially charged Black and White and the fact-based college-track tale McFarland), but the point that should be most interesting is when Neeson and Costner’s comparable paths cross at the multiplex, as 3 Days to Kill hits screens on Feb. 21, and Neeson’s new pulse-pounder, Non-Stop, arrives Feb. 28. Time will soon tell if this seasoned Yank can measure up to everyone’s favorite ass-kicking Irishman.