A film review by Craig J. Koban November 26, 2010

THE NEXT THREE DAYS jj

2010, PG-13, 133 mins.

 

John Brennan: Russell Crowe / Lara Brennan: Elizabeth Banks / George Brennan: Brian Dennehy / Damon Pennington: Liam Neeson / Nicole: Olivia Wilde / Luke: Ty Simpkins

Written and directed by Paul Haggis / Based on the film “Anything for Her” (“Pour Elle”), written by Cavaye and Guillaume Lemans

Paul Haggis’ THE NEXT THREE DAYS is a thriller about a Pennsylvanian community college Professor that – through some guts, perseverance, and much guidance from You Tube – hatches a plan to break his wife out of prison because all other legal options have failed.   This is a competent and well directed thriller with decided echoes of Hitchcock, especially for the manner it grounds its narrative in the vein of an everyday, ordinary man caught in problematic circumstances not of his own doing.  The performances by both lead actors are also resoundingly strong and credible, but it’s just a real shame that the overall story for THE NEXT THREE DAYS begins to crumble for a lack of credibility altogether, especially during it’s final 30 minutes, during which it becomes too preposterous to be taken seriously. 

Haggis is a writer/director of a highly respected and competent pedigree that needs to make no apologies (see his directorial efforts like CRASH and IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH or his terrific scripts for films as far ranging as MILLION DOLLAR BABY, THE LAST KISS, and CASINO ROYALE) but his screenplay for THE NEXT THREE DAYS – an adaptation of the 2007 French film, POUR ELLE (ANYTHING FOR HER) – does the rich and engrossing performances a disservice by not grounding them in an equally empowered narrative.  The resulting film leaves viewers feeling more than a bit off-center throughout: Haggis is a revered director of actors, and stars Russell Crowe and Elizabeth Banks keep the human interest level high throughout, but when you start to disbelieve the trajectory of the story they populate, you can’t help but feel a bit cheated in the end.   

The film also makes some odd and distracting narrative timeline jumps: it begins with a scene that is about a third of the way through the story and then flashes back to the past and then meets up with it later on until it culminates in the final act.  The first scene shows John (Russell Crowe, a rare actor that can play ruggedly tough action heroes and completely dweeby schlubs) covered in blood, driving erratically, and screaming to his unidentified occupant that is laying in the back seat and most likely dying.  We then flashback to a moment when John and his luminously beautiful, but headstrong and opinionated wife, Laura (Elizabeth Banks, perhaps one of the very few bombshell actresses that can effectively navigate between raunchy comedy and seriously drama) are out dining with some friends.  Laura in particular is in a very foul mood because of a rather large argument she just had at work with her boss.  By the time the couple awake from bed the next morning and prepare for the workday, police swarm over their middle-upper class home with a warrant and arrest Laura for the murder of her boss.  Hmmmm… 

The evidence against Laura seems to definitely point towards her guilt: the victim’s blood is found on her coat and her fingerprints were on the murder weapon.  Yet, she professes her innocence to her husband and John – perhaps using love over logic – is persuaded of her absolute innocence.   Ultimately, love and faith don’t matter, because Laura is found guilty and sentenced to a very length prison term.  John has made numerous attempts to plea with his attorney (very well played in a brief cameo by Daniel Stern), who in turn informs him that all other legal options have been used.  John wants to go to the Supreme Court, a proposition that is not met with much hope by his attorney.  As a result, John decides to go to more…shall we say…extreme measures. 

Firstly, he decides to have coffee with an ex-con turned author named Damon, played with a gravel voiced gravitas and immense charisma by Liam Neeson, who utterly owns the film during his few minutes of screen time.  Damon was a con that did manage to escape from prisons that we once thought to be airtight, and he politely answers all of John’s queries about what would be required in order to spring his wife.  The lessons that Damon imparts on John are kind of hilariously silly, but when an actor with the presence and resolve of Neeson utters them, you really buy their credence more than you should.  Nonetheless, John decides at this point that he will break his wife out of prison, but even with the guidance of Damon, John is by no means a jailbreaking expert. 

John takes all of Damon’s advice to heart – like the need to have just the right keys, just the right cash flow, just the right escape exits, just the right phony passports and social security numbers, and finally travel to just the right nation that has no formal extradition treaty with the U.S..  Damon also warns John that he will have 15 minutes after the escape before the police will have all nearby roads blocked and that it will take 35 minutes for descriptions of him and Laura to be posted at most airports, train stations, and bus terminals.  John, in order to not forget this info, writes the numbers 15 and 35 on his wrist during the escape attempt, but considering that he is a fairly intelligent scholar, you would think that he could commit those times to memory.   

One of the more interesting angles to THE NEXT THREE DAYS is that John is sort of a bumbling incompetent when it comes to the initial planning of the escape.  This is not a man that becomes a jailbreaking maestro overnight and he does make some categorical errors early on.  Yet, as he starts to take Damon’s advice – and a lot of advice from the Internet – he begins to methodically craft his plan.  A few problems arise, though, like the fact that Laura has attempted suicide and her mental faculties are starting to seriously subside, not to mention that bringing their young son adds another complex layer of moral baggage.  Nonetheless, after a series of setbacks and amateurish mistakes, John finally enacts his labyrinthian plot to secure his wife’s freedom and get them the hell out of the U.S. as quickly as possible. 

Again, I really admired the chief performances here: Crowe is more than equal to the task of creating a multi-faceted man of confusion, fear, anxiety, anger, and ultimately determination that starts as a nobody schmo and then becomes a serious, no-holds-barred man of action.  Banks’ casting is kind of captivating here: she plays a drop dead gorgeous wife at first that later morphs into a dreary, downtrodden and defeated prisoner that feels that her life is over.  I was taken in by how quietly sturdy and dramatically persuasive she was in the film, especially when I tend to think of her lately as a comedic actress.   She has never been more raw and convincing.    

However, I just had too much difficulty getting over the gigantic chasms of logic that the film wants us to leap over.  I was willing to buy into Crowe’s Prius driving, emotionally diminutive college lecturer turning into a seditious criminal mastermind, but there were times when he engages in actions that could only be attributed to a character pigeonholed into "The Idiot Plot Syndrome” (like, for example, a terribly impromptu experience he has robbing a crystal meth lab for cash where he does not in any way conceal his identity).  John’s final plan – which I will not reveal in detail here – is kind of fiendishly ingenious and hectically suspenseful in its implementation and execution while simultaneously feeling completely outlandish.  It’s an undeniably jolt to see Haggis drum up the tension and escalating dread of “will they, or won’t they escape” in the film’s final section, and the manner John engages is shrewd misdirection is kind of exhilarating, but too much absurd levels of contrivance and convenience punctuate the escape, especially with the side-story of the police detectives hot on the couple’s trail.  After while, my excitement gave way to heavy eye rolling.   

There is also one large issue with Haggis’s film, and that concerns the way he really deceives and manipulates the audience in terms of Laura’s guilt or innocence.  Now, a vastly more intriguing idea would have been to never reveal whether she did it or not, which potentially could have made John’s jailbreak attempt seem that much more narrow mindedly fanatical.  The evidence against this woman is absolutely damning, and Haggis provides a nifty little black and white sequence that seems to specifically point one way and really throws us off, and then – at the end of the film – we revisit the same flashback via a different viewpoint that radically clears up our bewilderment.  I found that to be pointlessly manipulative and intolerably telegraphed move on Haggis' part.   By showing the first misdirected flashback you more than expect a later flashback to correct everything that the first one presented.  Removing both would have eliminated this issue altogether.    

Ultimately, though, that would not be enough to override THE NEXT THREE DAYS’ flaws.  What we are left with is an exemplary acted film with some fine directorial touches trapped in a silly script that is not up to par with the talent on board.  Haggis, in particular since he served as screenwriter, should have also known better. 

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