An okay thriller with lots of smart flourishes, The Next Three Days has us hooked early on but never quite gets us in the boat. Writer-director Paul Haggis stares into but fails to find an intriguing character in his monolithic leading man.
It's sometimes hard for filmmakers to drive star vehicles. William Goldman complained that writing All the President's Men was difficult because Robert Redford commissioned vanity scenes. An attractive girlfriend showing up here. A big speech there.
Perhaps that's what happened with The Next Three Days. Haggis directed the film, but star Russell Crowe called the shots.
The film gets off to a terrific start. Crowe's character, John, is an English teacher, a likeable, ironic guy. Not ambitious. Living in Pittsburgh and working at a community college is exactly his speed. We meet him at a restaurant with wife Lara (Elizabeth Banks). She's just had a row with her boss. Now she's fighting her sister-in-law. John sits back and smiles.
Crowe isn't supposed to be a gladiator this time out. He's an amused spectator. His wife is the one with the broadsword. Next day at breakfast, John is cuddling his boy, Luke, making fun of Mom's temper when the police burst in, arresting Lara for murder.
It's a great opening with a better set up than the 2007 film, Pour Elle, upon which The Next Three Days is based. As in the French film, our bookish teacher is forced to learn a new trade: jail breaker. To save his family, John has to figure out how to pull off a prison break from the outside.
Unfortunately, what should be a compelling character study falls apart a few scenes later when that character, the lost, middle-aged spectator, disappears. John shows up at a park with Luke, and a spectacular, Bond-type girl, a divorcée with a child, lights up upon seeing him. He's acting like he's Russell Crowe.
For The Next Three Days to work, we have to wonder if a lost, wounded academic can become an action hero. There should be a scene where the teacher hurries into a phone booth, becoming Superman. But that never happens. Ten minutes into the movie, three beautiful women have already come on to John - his sister-in-law, wife, and the Bond girl.
Middle-age dislocation shouldn't be this much fun.
So we're not that surprised when John swings into an efficient fighting machine, disarming bad guys and evading the authorities. Crowe even wears action-hero stubble throughout.
The film also could have made more of Elizabeth Banks. At one point, we believe she's the reincarnation of Barbara Stanwyck - a scheming forties femme fatale. What fun the movie might have been if Lara played John for a chump. Like Stanwyck set up Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity.
If Paul Haggis fails to work magic with his leads, he does a lot of other things right. The jailbreak attempt is well orchestrated and suitably tense. And as he demonstrated in Crash, the Canadian filmmaker is good at moving minor characters around. The criminal element, including jailbreak expert Liam Neeson, and the cops on John's trail are convincing and fun to watch.
Canadian audiences will also appreciate Haggis's jab at a national punching bag. A character is asked by an Air Canada ticket-taker why he isn't taking any baggage on an international flight. Thinking quickly, he responds, "How many times have you lost my baggage?" At which point the Air Canada official sheepishly sends him through.
The Next Three Days
- Directed by Paul Haggis
- Written by Paul Haggis and Fred Cavayé
- Starring Russell Crowe, Elizabeth Banks, Liam Neeson, Brian Dennehy and Olivia Wilde
- Classification: 14A
Special to The Globe and Mail