There is a displeasing quality to The Next Three Days that sticks in your mouth like stale popcorn, dries the eyes and lips, requires too much soda pop or smuggled beverage of choice and prevents the film from really succeeding. Not quite action-adventure, surely not character-centric, this is the first screenplay from Paul Haggis since his 2007 film In The Valley of Elah, though he has other credits in between. It might be more appropriate to comment on Haggis’ return to the director’s chair since Elah, and of course, whether you liked it or not it is impossible to forget his more widely received Oscar-winning film Crash. But it made money, you say, it turned $30 million dollars into $58, isn’t that accomplishment? In Hollywood terms, yes. Nevertheless, this film materializes out of hot air, loses momentum by the thirty minute mark and stumbles so fast to the finish line there is hardly time to care about the characters or the magnitude of their predicament. While it has the makings of an interesting story, Russell Crowe as an unwitting husband and father who risks everything to save his wife after she is arrested for murder, it never quite feels right. The premise is weak boned, unable to advance beyond the baby steps of a heist film where the loot, as we’re told, is the righting of the wrongly incarcerated young mother and wife for murder. This fact alone is the driving force of the film, the belabored starting place that feels too certain a finishing place for its own good.
Russell Crowe is a schoolteacher, a father and a husband. He doesn’t live a secret life or aspire for international espionage, he doesn’t have connections with organized crime or the needier side of life where guns, drugs, and car chases are the norm. He’s a schoolteacher. The trouble with schoolteachers is they’re hardly the type to envision a daring escape, let alone accomplish it. With the ticking click of the last three days before his wife is sent away to real prison disrupting his otherwise static life, John Brennan (Crowe) slowly, methodically plods through just what it would take to get his life back. The ensuing, convoluted plot teeters off-balance and unrewardingly into the third act where not even a deadly race against time and seemingly adept cops manages to dispel the growing feeling you’ve been had.
Crowe is fresh from Ridley Scott’s polished version of Robin Hood (2010) as the husband to the accused played in flat line fashion by Elizabeth Banks. Liam Neeson shows up as the streetwise master criminal with the plan and a weathered Brian Dennehy is the father with something to say but keeps tight-lipped. I personally would have preferred to see more with Dennehy’s character, give him more to say, much more to do. It’s not so much that the film is bad as it is lazy, a story you’d more likely find in a movie of the week production for the lifetime channel than on the big screen.
As you might guess, there is little surprise and many exacting details in this film. The majority of the first and second acts are wasted on the minutiae of transformation from everyday Dick and Jane to planning, orchestrating and executing his daring, albeit foolhardy rescue plan. We have seen this before, the transformation of the average to the extraordinary, the simple to the complex machinations of character, bravado, and a little stupidity in the name of doing the right thing when the world is upside down. However, we’re never fully allowed into this world that is supposed to be a lot like our world, a place we know because we too have experience injustice and strife, struggle not so much an act as a way of life. From the onset we’re shown a world where normal is anything but and a place that would convict an everyday mother and wife of murder, this fact glaringly omitted with others as no more than a plot device with the sole purpose of fueling the preposterous through line.
The film has been described as “surprisingly light on thrills” by Mark Pfeiffer at Reel Times: Reflections on Cinema, and Philip French of the Guardian [UK] reminds us that, “Neither Crowe nor Banks matches the levels of determination and despair that Vincent Lindon and Diane Kruger brought to the same roles in the original film.” David Denby of the New Yorker calls the film, “a caper without playfulness or wit — it’s accomplished but not much fun.” And for all the unassuming accolades, the diet variety commentary on truly what amounts to cinematic filler for the off-season, others find promise from thin air. Kelly Vance of the East Bay Express writes, “The Next Three Days is so successful in its unassuming, violent way that it’s tempting to advise Haggis to only adapt other writers’ work from now on.” It might be that Mr. Roger Ebert has slowed a bit in his many years as the go to popcorn-afternoon cinephile when he writes, “The Next Three Days is not a bad movie. It’s sort of slow, because it spells out a lot of details, but it kept me involved. It’s just that, after it was over, I felt it was a waste of the talent involved.”
As the credits crawl to a close and the lights come on you will most likely store this film away and replace it with something else. You might remember this film over a conversation about the actors or writer/director Paul Haggis, but most likely, inevitably you must decide if the implausible is enough, if familiar faces can substitute interesting characters, unique stories and everything the movie going experience is supposed to be. Or not.