Socio-political preaching takes a backseat to pulse-pounding suspense in The Next Three Days, Paul Haggis’s remake of the 2008 French thriller Pour Elle, about a schoolteacher named John (Russell Crowe) who, three years after his wife Laura’s (Elizabeth Banks) life sentence for murdering her boss, endeavors to break her out of the big house. Before that daring feat, however, Haggis’s film—opening with the sight of John frantically driving at night while a backseat voice lets out its final dying breath—takes its sweet time detailing John and Laura’s dinner out on the night of the crime, Laura’s sudden arrest at home the following morning, and then John’s increasingly arduous efforts to raise their young son Luke (Ty Simpkins), who’s encouraged by his father to strike back against schoolyard bullies who mock him about his mother, and acts cold around her during penitentiary visits. It’s an untenable present that affords no avenue for a tenable future, until, that is, John—in the sole scene that exhibits Haggis’s penchant for bluntly articulating themes and characters’ motivations—takes heed of his own Don Quixote classroom lecture about the virtues of irrationality and embraces the question, “What if we chose to exist in a reality completely of our own making?”
The uninhibited reality created by John entails figuring out how to pull off a crime for which he is thoroughly ill equipped. A few Google searches and YouTube videos later, he’s adept at breaking into a car without setting off its alarm (the trick, apparently, is using modified tennis ball), though his similar attempt to fashion a universal “bump key” that’ll give him access to the prison’s secured elevator systems results in a nerve-jangling sequence of disaster. That sort of suspense is generally maintained by The Next Three Days, albeit not quite as vigorously as one would like. When John interviews an Irish author famous for having escaped imprisonment seven times, and that man turns out to be a grizzled Liam Neeson, visions of a more rugged, streamlined, Taken-esque version of the film are apt to begin dancing in one’s head. Alas, given prime exploitation material (he’s mad as hell at his wife’s wrongful imprisonment, and he’s not going to take it anymore, collateral damage be damned!), Haggis plays it more conservatively. That’s fine as far as it goes, but there’s nonetheless an element of raw, unbridled emotion, of John’s overwhelming grief, misery, powerlessness, and resultant madman determination, that never quite breaks through the film’s manicured façade.
Both Crowe and Banks are sturdy in inherently limited roles, as both leads exude desperation and despair even as Haggis’s script fails to fully flesh them out. This is especially true in the case of John, whose steadfast belief in his wife’s innocence is so deep (he never even asked her if she did it!), and his marital devotion to her is so unwavering and extreme, that it’s frustrating to not receive greater insight into the root causes of that very loyalty. Instead of coming across as a flawed, increasingly unhinged everyman, John is just Super Husband, willing to rob and kill in the name of fidelity. Still, if it skimps on character depth and somewhat dawdles during its first two acts, in which a pair of taut centerpieces helps prop up dramatic filler (including a subplot involving Olivia Wilde’s single mom), The Next Three Days refuses to puff up its action with message-movie sermonizing. Rather, it remains, for better and worse, a high-gloss prison-break movie in reverse, one that every so often raises a thorny moral dilemma (primarily with regard to the consequences of John’s reckless plan on his son, who could potentially be orphaned by the scheme’s failure), but never to the detriment of its no-nonsense, moderately energized B-movie kicks.