Russell Crowe as a timid, schlubby community college professor takes some getting used to. It’s not like he’s even super smart ala “A Beautiful Mind”, though he’s plenty clever with the right research, and the man knows how to do some research. Fortunately for Paul Haggis’ “The Next Three Days” (an adaptation of the French film “Pour elle”), watching Crowe transform from nebbish professor to slumming criminal is quite the delight, and I dare say, the film’s first hour is much more refined and entertaining than the final Third Act, which finds Crowe’s suburban house dad finally act on his carefully laid plans to bust his wife out of prison.
Crowe stars as John Brennan, a happily married husband to Elizabeth Banks’ Lara and son Luke (Ty Simpkins). He’s not the bravest guy in the world, and his most daring exploits begins and ends with flirting with his brother’s girlfriend. However, John loves his wife with a passion, and she feels the same about him. The Brennans’ idyllic suburban, ordinary life busts wide open when cops raid their house one morning and haul Lara off to prison, charging her with the murder of her boss. Years go by, with John struggling to raise Luke, all the while pursuing all legal venues to free Lara. Unfortunately for them, the evidence against her is air tight, and Lara is eventually convicted. At the end of his ropes, John decides the only way to save his wife, and his family, is to break her out of prison. That, alas, is easier said than done.
As mentioned, John is not exactly the rogue-ish type, and Crowe looks the part of a suburban house dad ill prepared to walk the criminal side. Nevertheless, he’s smart, or at least smart enough to know that he can’t break Lara out of prison with what he already knows, which is not very much. Liam Neeson has a brief cameo as a prison break-out artist who offers John some helpful advices, and rapper RZA is one of the criminal elements that John seeks out in his quest for illegal accessories to help with his crime. Unfortunately John’s first few forays into the underworld do not go well, but he learns, and adjusts, and most of all, his unfaltering belief that his wife is innocent drives him like a man possessed.
Russell Crowe is excellent as John Brennan, and his journey from simple community college professor to gun-toting criminal keeps much of the film a grueling, nail-bitingly emotional affair. As one of John’s dangerous criminal contacts tells him, he wants it so badly, he’s liable to mess it up, though the thug uses much more colorful language. Much of the film follows John as he slowly and believable come to embrace what is needed of him in order to achieve his plan. As Liam Neeson’s break-out artist tells him, to make this work he needs to be able and willing to shoot someone or knock down an old lady if necessary. Is John capable of those things? Although the film’s advertising sell the movie as one big chase sequence with John and Lara on the lam, “The Next Three Days” is more interested in following John’s progress as he becomes the man he needs to be to save his wife.
“The Next Three Days” is written and directed by Paul Haggis (“Crash”), who takes his time leading to the film’s big Third Act chase. After struggling with John Brennan for nearly 90 minutes, you can’t help but root for the guy as he makes a run for it. Haggis does make a couple of interesting choices in terms of characters, though. He introduces an entirely new set of cops halfway into the film, just as John is about to set his plans into motion, that left me scratching my head. It’s a very late addition, especially given that John and Lara already have a cop nemesis who, as far as I can tell, hasn’t gone anywhere that would have prevented him from giving chase during the escape. Haggis also takes away one of the film’s better elements – the question of Lara’s guilt. Did she or didn’t she do it? All the evidence says Yes, but John is so insistent that she’s innocent, surely she must be? Some gray in this area would have left the audience intrigued, but Haggis apparently thought differently, and you do learn without a shred of doubt if she did or did not commit the crime.
There are some nice supporting work in “The Next Three Days”. Neeson, in his brief appearance, is the main highlight, but Olivia Wilde as a single mother who John befriends is tempting. Then again, Olivia Wilde is always tempting, so maybe that last observation isn’t so unbiased. The venerable Brian Dennehy plays John’s father-in-law, a gruff, soft-spoken man who is smarter than he looks, while Lennie James is excellent as the seemingly brilliant cop who arrives basically out of nowhere to chase our hero. As I mentioned in the previous paragraph, James’ character is a bit of an oddity, as Haggis already had a perfectly serviceable cop antagonist who was introduced early on and hung around the movie right to the very end. But hey, it’s always great to see Lennie James get work, so there’s that.
I had doubts about “The Next Three Days” going in, but was pleasantly surprised by how much of a good, solid, and entertaining a movie it was. Don’t get me wrong, Paul Haggis hasn’t broken the mold here, but he’s made a very solid Hollywood feature. Oh sure, John’s plan goes perhaps a bit too smoothly in the end, and (as one character snickers) for just a community college professor, he sure ended up being pretty damn ingenious when the chips are down. Still, after stumbling and hurting and being terrified alongside this guy for 90 minutes as he plots and plans and falters and gets right back up and keeps on moving forward, I’m willing to overlook a lot of things. In the end, Haggis has got me so invested in John Brennan’s plan, I’ve become a willing accomplice.
I don’t think enough people give Russell Crowe credit at playing the “average guy”. He’s played so many great, tough heroes, that it’s hard to forget he can be pretty good at being ordinary, too. He’s fantastic as the Everyman turned almost Superhero in his quest to save his beloved. Elizabeth Banks also deserves some kudos in what is mostly an unsung role; nevertheless, she never fails to be effective while onscreen. The film is slow going in the early parts, and all the wild chase action you see in the trailers don’t kick in until the Third Act, so be forewarned going in. But if you’re looking for a pretty entertaining story about a man who must find out what he’s made of, what he’s capable of and how far he’s willing to go, “The Next Three Days” does a damn fine job.
Paul Haggis (director) / Paul Haggis (screenplay), Fred Cavayé and Guillaume Lemans (screenplay “Pour elle”)
CAST: Russell Crowe … John Brennan
Elizabeth Banks … Lara Brennan
Michael Buie … Mick Brennan
Moran Atias … Erit
Olivia Wilde … Nicole
Liam Neeson … Damon Pennington
Brian Dennehy … George Brennan
Lennie James … Lieutenant Nabulsi