Lionsgate // 2010 // 133 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Appellate Judge James A. Stewart (Retired) // March 7th, 2011
"It no longer matters what we believe! Lara is not getting out!"
In real life, there are appeals. In The Next Three Days, there's an escape plan.
The movie's based on Pour Elle, a French thriller. Paul Haggis says he made the American remake "darker" to reflect more on "the questions that they raised." He proudly calls the movie "more French than their film."
John (Russell Crowe, Gladiator) and Lara (Elizabeth Banks, 30 Rock) have a perfect marriage -- so much so that she takes family pictures at breakfast. It's not so perfect, though, when the police burst in during breakfast, shoving John around and dragging Lara out while their son sits there crying. It seems Lara's boss was murdered and some circumstantial evidence -- actually a lot of circumstantial evidence -- points to her.
Three years later, John's still filing appeals, although his lawyer tells him it's futile. After Lara attempts suicide in prison, John visits an ex-con (Liam Neeson, Schindler's List) who once escaped from prison. The former fugitive tells him that an escape plan will be expensive and dangerous, and will turn him into a person he doesn't want to be. Naturally, John decides he can pull it off and starts to build his plan on a wall in his home.
Even as the police start to keep an eye on John, he's breaking the law to prepare an escape from Pittsburgh for himself, his wife, and his son.
Yeah, in real life, John would keep filing appeals, not plan an escape. As John builds his plan, writer/director Paul Haggis and star Russell Crowe turn that into the movie's main strength. John, a college instructor, even talks about Don Quixote in class to let viewers know that even the character knows it's a crazy thing to do. Mostly, though, it's just fascinating watching Crowe descend into John's madness.
At every stage, John's plan looks futile. When he goes to buy fake passports, he gets robbed. When he buys a gun, he has to ask "where the bullets go." He breaks a key in a prison lock while testing a jailbreak plan. As you'd expect when the husband of a lifer books a helicopter tour that goes over the prison and suddenly sells his house, John eventually draws the attention of the police. All the while, he's becoming more and more frustrated.
Each step also presents moral dilemmas. Aside from breaking into a medical truck and getting forgeries, John considers robbing a bank, and eventually does take a course of action that leaves a couple of dead bodies behind him. At this point, viewers know that he's no longer the mild-mannered academic.
Through this, Crowe and Elizabeth Banks are seen as a loving couple trying to remain strong -- and thoughtful of each other -- through every stage of their ordeal. An early prison visit has both of them trying to seem natural in a prison playroom as their son investigates a toy. Later, John tells Lara the bad news about the appeal in prison, leaving her in tears and him with a pained reaction. Lara even tells John she did it.
The emotions in the performances of Crowe and Banks remain a constant through the escape plan. When he bursts in with a gun, Lara at first tells John she's not going, and it's only his desperation that forces her to go along with the plan. He's a bit too ready with the gun as they're fleeing, and they have an argument when he wants to leave their son with his parents to guarantee their escape.
There is a problem with the escape, though. It's too damn easy. The movie presents the river geography of Pittsburgh, its setting and filming location, as an obstacle. I've driven in Pittsburgh at rush hour, so I knew that to be the case while I was watching. During the actual escape from Pittsburgh, though, John's zipping back and forth with ease, despite roadblocks all over the city and reckless driving that should be attracting police attention anyway.
Pittsburgh looks splendid. Its skyline and geography are used artistically in nearly every exterior scene, something that movies can't do when they're subbing one city's geography for another. Thus, The Next Three Days looks better than your average thriller. In the bonus features, Haggis talks a lot about why he liked shooting in Pittsburgh, noting that the city has changed from an industrial town to more of a college town over the years.
In the commentary (which also features producer Michael Nozik and editor Jo Francis), Haggis notes that the movie ended up more than three hours long, requiring a lot of trimming. You'll see some of the deleted and shortened scenes in the extras. There are a couple of nice ones, most notably a realtor's visit, but the end result appears stronger for being trimmed down. "Making The Next Three Days" goes into the ambience of Pittsburgh a lot. "The Men of The Next Three Days" features the male actors; most interesting were Brian Dennehy's comments on doing scenes with barely any dialogue. "True Escapes For Love," hosted by Jason Beghe, takes a reality TV-style look at prison escapes in Arizona, California, and Tennessee. "Cast Moments" is a blooper reel that, among other things, shows that those chase scenes aren't as smooth as you think.
Part of the Pittsburgh angle is heavy handed. John and Laura smooch in their car with a beautiful lighted bridge in the background early in the film. The cops yell "Pittsburgh police!" as they burst in, instead of the more economical "Police!" John puts on a Pirates cap as part of a disguise to rob a bank. It feels like a tourist board showcase of travel options -- train, subway, and car -- when John hits every angle in the escape.
The Next Three Days tends to be schizophrenic: is it a caper or an emotional study? When the movie actually deals with the caper as a caper instead of an emotional starting point, it's only average. Thankfully, everyone involved put the emphasis on the personal. An ironic ending coda with police investigators tips Paul Haggis' hand completely on that, as if you still could have had doubts about his serious intentions, but if the performances of Russell Crowe and Elizabeth Banks hadn't done such a good job of showing the loving couple in an absurd situation, I'd have been laughing at that point.
The movie's thoroughly modern, but their performances add a touch of classic noir (given the theme, I wished I could have seen Jimmy Cagney playing John) and a touch of class. Haggis might not have reached the introspection of a European thriller, but there was enough good old-fashioned emotional resonance to carry the movie.
Review content copyright © 2011 James A. Stewart; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.40:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 EX (English)
Running Time: 133 Minutes
Release Year: 2010
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Cinema Verdict Review