Todd McCarthy's Film Review: 'The Next Three Days'

Clever thriller needs a quicker pulse for big mainstream success.

A tasty, pressure-cooker story is served lukewarm in 'The Next Three Days.' In his third outing as a director, Paul Haggis leaves aside political editorializing to focus on the intense efforts of a teacher to free his wife from 20 years' imprisonment on a murder charge by the only means left to him -- engineering her escape.

Although involving, this remake of a recent French film never reaches the anticipated heights of excitement and suspense, and Russell Crowe's subdued characterization of an ordinary man who undertakes extraordinary actions remains a little too ordinary. This Lionsgate release looks headed for moderate box-office returns.

Haggis' projects, from his self-directed features Crash and In the Valley of Elah to his scripts for Million Dollar Baby, the Iwo Jima pair and even Casino Royale, almost invariably revolve around individuals in extremis, and Three Days is no exception. The premise, adapted from the 2008 film Anything for Her, directed by Fred Cavaye, written by Cavaye and Guillaume Lemans and starring Vincent Lindon and Diane Kruger, is novel and intriguing as it pivots on the efforts of an unassuming community-college English teacher to figure out how to commit a prison break from the outside.

Living in Pittsburgh -- a nearly invisible city in cinema for years but now evidently Hollywood's favorite location on the basis of this and Love & Other Drugs and with Unstoppable having been shot nearby -- John (Crowe) and Lara (Elizabeth Banks) Brennan and their 6-year-old son, Luke (Ty Simpkins), are doing just fine until Lara is charged with and convicted of a nocturnal parking-lot murder. Deliberately sketchy multiple peeks at the incident leave the question of her guilt entirely open, though her coat indisputably had the victim's blood on it.

Once appeals have been exhausted and Lara has a date with the state pen in three months' time, John comes to his decision. Inspired by what he takes to be the theme of Don Quixote, the book he is teaching (in an English class?) -- "the triumph of irrationality" -- the man begins researching his audacious plan by interviewing a former escaped con-turned-author (wonderfully played by Liam Neeson). In the film's most compelling minutes, this tough old bird plainly lays out the multiple challenges John will face, advising him that busting out is easy compared to remaining free and providing essential tips on how long he'll have before the encirling net would be sure to ensnare him.

In rather less convincing scenes, John makes an ill-advised descent into the local underworld to procure fake passports and I.D.s, a quest that ultimately puts him at odds with a trigger-happy drug dealer (Kevin Corrigan). These interludes might be intended to teach John street smarts and toughen him up enough to survive life on the run, but they play more like obligatory action-movie sequences designed to provoke confrontations and put a weapon in Crowe's hand.

Bright but a bit plodding, John unaccountably puts the fruits of his extensive Internet research up on a wall where anyone who might come in could see it. He also has the occasional playground encounter with a local single mom (Olivia Wilde, almost too gorgeous for the mundane circumstances), who could momentarily take John's mind off his obsession if he'd let her.

As the date of Lara's transfer draws near, a major question remains whether she'll be inclined to go along with her husband's plot. All the same, it moves ahead, and its intricacies and unexpected twists are documented coherently if not bracingly by Haggis and his team.

For a combination of reasons -- including moderate overlength (133 minutes where no more than two hours were called for), a certain lack of desperation at the core of Crowe's performance, the want of an unsettling mercurial nature in Banks' character that would have really made you wonder about her at times and an uncharacteristically conventional score by Danny Elfman -- the film only rarely rises above the competent. The carpentry of the script is all too evident, and the few surprises and kicks reside only in the plotting, not at all in the way the film was made.

One pretty funny surprise, however, lies in the identity of the nation John decides to go to if his plot succeeds, given that the country in question had to be doubled by a not-entirely-friendly neighbor as an actual shooting location.

Opens: Friday, Nov. 19
Production: Hwy 61 Films/Lionsgate production
Cast: Russell Crowe, Elizabeth Banks, Brian Dennehy, Lennie James, Olivia Wilde, Ty Simpkins, Helen Carey, Liam Neeson, Daniel Stern, Kevin Corrigan
Director-screenwriter: Paul Haggis
Producers: Michael Nozik, Paul Haggis, Oliver Delbosc, Marc Missonnier
Executive producer: Agnes Mentre, Anthony Katagas.
Director of photography: Stephane Fontaine
Production designer: Laurence Bennett
Music: Danny Elfman
Costume designer: Abigail Murray
Editor: Jo Francis
Rated PG-13, 133 minutes