Writer/Director Paul Haggis shows quite a bit more competence in his action-thriller remake The Next Three Days than I expected. Personally, I found his Best Picture Oscar winner Crash to be among the laziest, most insulting things I’ve ever encountered within the “serious drama” category and I really didn’t have the energy to witness more praise for his films having experienced the actual ham-handedness of them.
Instead, this time around Haggis took a French film that was almost all he needed for a carbon copy, and applied all of the right touches to make it a better night at the movies. It isn’t enough to fill the large gaps in plausibility and momentum, but there’s a touching undercurrent and an uncommon subtlety in this caper flick that would have raised it above the straight Summer pyrotechnic affairs of that film season. The present schedule however grants you the options of The Social Network, 127 Hours, Black Swan, and True Grit. If you see ten movies this Fall you should see The Next Three Days.
Basically a man’s wife (Elizabeth Banks) is whisked away by officers of the law after a few minutes of desperately trying to establish a relationship between her and the film’s leading role. Overwhelming evidence convinces the judicial system of her absolute guilt in killing her boss, and inserted murder scenes throughout the film poke the audience with ambiguity. It’s a misstep, as we’ve already witnessed the opening in which she discovers a blood stain and has no idea where it came from.
The film’s rocky start continues when Crowe pays a best-selling author and professional bar breaker to show him the ropes of busting her out of prison over one pint of Guinness. This two-minute character is a waste of Liam Neeson and the lack of effort put into his American accent suggests the drink was his paycheck.
When this plan starts to form, watching how it all plays out makes it The Next Three Days a mostly engaging film that reminds us that while our freedom may be constricted by financial concern and unfair improbability, we can’t let that be the forefront of what we’re about.
Russell Crowe is playing this kind of genuine human being and it works. He’s not as skilled with it as he is with a gladius but he doesn’t try too hard to prove otherwise. There’s a deep, tightly wound knot in John Brennan’s soul as he portrays it, and we’re witnessing it the same way we would in someone we know going through a traumatizing situation.
He’s despondent, carries out his most essential responsibilities, and never has the inclination to soap-box-moralize like every other Paul Haggis frontliner I’ve seen. His relationship with his father includes fewer lines of dialogue than I can count on one hand, and between them is the finest performance in the film via where-has-he-been-since-FX actor Brian Dennehy.
The Next Three Days isn’t without its sense of humor. John’s drama actually provides for a dark flavor of it. He studies Youtube videos of the way to break into a car with a tennis ball and the “easyish” way make a bump key. It seems none of these tutorials say he should wear gloves to conceal fingerprints.
Plot holes forgiven, this is a fine character study that, if in the hands of a master filmmaker, would have earned Crowe an Oscar nomination. After the backlash of Crash I don’t see this happening, and rightfully so because an actor’s performance is only half his or her own, with the rest falling to those behind the scenes.
In this case they provide a boring framework of frequently crippled momentum. The lighting is mostly one-note, and the script betrays the simplicity of it when John, at his teaching job, bluntly compares himself to Don Quixote.
The same lack of care is given to his wife. Similar to Edward Norton’s Stone, the character’s prison life must include moisturizing her face and quality conditioning to her hair. This wasn’t the state of Diane Kruger in the French version For Her. Still, I admit that even more than Russell Crowe (without A Beautiful Mind and The Insider on her resume) Elizabeth Banks plows way past the limitations I was led to believe she had. What was once a product of star manufacturing might soon become a real contender.
Coming back to John Brennan, he strategically engages the complexity of this situation, but he’s not the all-seeing, all-knowing cock of the walk that usually breaks into a bank or out of a prison. He never knows what’s going to happen, and neither do we. It’s a thrill to see him meet that challenge without flipping off the system in a self-satisfying manner. There’s even a shade of the ass kicking Crowe we’ve become accustomed to, but he doesn’t let that compromise his ambition.
The adventure winds to a swan song that plays to the combined tune of generic thriller and Moby’s last album. The characters even manage to shine through the action when we’re reminded that this is about a marriage, and that’s never compromised by the fact that Banks wasn’t privy to the planning stage. It’s a shame that needless cutting to the incompetence of police officers and hanging for the scenery of Pittsburgh makes this entire film awkwardly paced through to the far-too-long final act.
Overall Score: SID 6.70 – Okay. (6s are just okay. These movies usually have many flaws, didn’t try to do anything special, or were poorly executed. Some will still love 6s, but most prefer to just rent them. Watch more trailers and read more reviews before you decide.)
With a better director this might have been a heart stopper, but the result is an unfortunate mess for all the quality that can be seen through the cracks. Still, I’m glad Paul Haggis didn’t reach into his bag of tricks and that gunplay and car chases were kept to the Hollywood minimum.