The Next Three Days, Paul Haggis's remake of the 2008 French film Pour Elle, sports a scenario that could make for either a good Hitchcock film or one of those fashionably sick Korean thrillers that seem to be all the rage these days. Normal, everyday English teacher John Brennan (Russell Crowe) finds the limits of his morality and all around good behavior tested when his wife, Lara (Elizabeth Banks), is sentenced to lifetime incarceration for beating her boss to death with a fire extinguisher outside her office building. After a lengthy appeals process that goes nowhere, John—steadfast and convinced of Lara's innocence despite considerable evidence to the contrary—sets upon breaking her free with the idea that he'll rush her and their six-year-old son, Luke (Ty Simpkins), off to another country where they can all presumably resume their lives as a stable, unified family.
The naiveté and crushing obviousness of Haggis's prior films is undeniable, but the filmmaker has been so derided in certain circles online that I've grown somewhat defensive of him despite my own admitted indifference to his work. Haggis also, lest we forget co-wrote the screenplay for Casino Royale (assuming writing credits on huge franchise entries are to be trusted at all), one of the most enjoyable James Bond films in decades, and it's that Haggis that occasionally shows up for The Next Three Days. The film is an often humorless and, yes, rather obvious thriller that nevertheless affords the filmmaker the opportunity to dismount the political soapbox and mostly concentrate on good old-fashion narrative ingenuity.
The film is a drag for the first 30 minutes or so though. Haggis isn't a filmmaker for incidental, improvisatory details, and each clearly expository note hits with a dull thud as the film obviously winds its narrative trap. First we see an argument with a curvy beauty near the beginning that unconvincingly suggests that Lara might be capable of the murder charges. Then we learn that Lara insists on taking a quick family snapshot each morning that we just know will resurface somehow to ironic effect. A fuss is made over a collection of quarters. John has daddy issues. Lara's unable to work with women. Then the Big Hint: Lara slipping into the bathroom to take an insulin shot, as subtle a portent of trouble as a black cat crossing someone's path.
The Next Three Days begins to come alive a little once Haggis gets the setup out of the way and allows his leading man to play someone more believably in his wheelhouse. In the first act, John isn't a regular Joe, but one of those heightened Regular Joes the movies so often condescendingly offer us; his innocuousness is practically fetishized, and Crowe, despite the weight gain, is simply too alpha a male to pass as a mild academic failure who teaches Don Quixote at a local community college—and, yes, that particular reference is pointedly planted for a reason as well. But Crowe gets to play his specialty once the injustice has been suitably wrought: the wronged male gradually consumed with obsessive rage. Crowe's played this role far too often, but this is still his best work in years, and his brooding energy gives the film a charge.
The third act especially sets Crowe free to give the kind of compelling, unfussy physical performance that made him a star to begin with. The escape itself turns out to be impressive, managing that tricky balance of being just believable enough to excite your imagination. Haggis has set and shot the film in and around Pittsburgh, and he takes unusually convincing advantage of the city's seemingly labyrinthine series of bridges and tunnels. The pursuits are refreshingly down and dirty, and the film conveys that jumpy, immediate panic of that universal nightmare of someone pursuing you from seemingly every angle. In these moments, Haggis shakes free of his script's hand-wringing and lends authenticity to the old movie trope of average people thrust headfirst into something far beyond their capabilities.
Still, one wishes that The Next Three Days were a little less square. Haggis never explores the compromises and sacrifices that Liam Neeson's terrific cameo prepares us for, as John is never tested to any extent that truly threatens to alienate us from him. The usual unimaginative prejudicial details are relied upon as well: The various prison workers are stern and unsympathetic as points are routinely scored on their failure to empathize with John and Lara's plight. The Next Three Days is Haggis's best film so far, but he has the potential to make a better one yet if he ever decides to truly engage with his characters'—or his—darker impulses.
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The film is clearly going for the look of a certain kind of 1970s crime film in which the darkness appears to be threatening to swallow the characters whole. Blacks, blues, and browns dominate, while the whites are grainy and somewhat washed out. The transfer here is fine, but it could use a little more clarity, as the darkness occasionally dominates in a fashion that probably wasn't intended: A few of the back-alley confrontations have a visual-coherence issue that might not have been present in the theater. Still, the film looks reasonably well most of the time, and the detail in the film's ultra-bright daylight finale is impressive. The sound is consistently excellent and precise throughout, which serves in highlighting a number of Paul Haggis's hints and punchlines, such as the sound editing of the final moment with the button.
The commentary by Haggis, producer Michael Nozik, and editor Jo Francis is mostly composed of the usual "We did this during that scene and that during this scene" anecdotes, but the trio has an unforced, appealingly relaxed chemistry. Haggis, who dominates the commentary, discusses his various writing, directing, and condensing decisions, such as the needless moments he trimmed to whittle the film down from its original three-hour running time or the various ways he achieved the film's numerous trick shots. The commentary has an entertaining Pop-Up Video vibe, as you can turn it on and still make out most of the actual movie while various somewhat nerdy tidbits emerge.
The featuerettes—"Making of The Next Three Days" and "The Men of The Next Three Days"—are forgettable promo items that largely repeat bits covered in the filmmaker's commentary. The deleted and extended scenes afford a better-than-usual glimpse into Haggis and Francis's process of shortening the film (and there are a few moments—establishing how John formulates a crucial part of his escape plan—that should've probably remained in the film). "Cast Moments" is a traditional bloopers reel, but the only real embarrassment here is the pointless and vaguely exploitive "True Escapes for Love" featurette, which attempts to tie in the crime sprees of real life criminals such as Bonnie and Clyde with those fictionally portrayed in the feature film.
The Next Three Days is Paul Haggis's best film so far, and he has the potential to make a better one yet if he ever decides to truly engage his characters'—or his—darker impulses.