Paul Haggis has a knack for disecting various issues, then throwing them in your face. He lacks subtlety but is otherwise a damn good writer and a competent director. His methods work, so much so that he's already won two Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay ("Crash"). His stories are usually character driven more than anything, which supplies any movie he's involved in with a certain level of human authenticity and earnest drama, whether it's action fare like "Casino Royale", investigation procedurals like "In the Valley of Elah" or social awareness manifestos like "Crash".
Having said all that, you will understand why "The Next Three Days" works far better than it should, despite being wildly implausible at times, and provides an intriguing perspective to what could otherwise have been a mundane prison break story. Russell Crowe plays John Brennan, a professor at a community college, whose life takes a dark turn when his wife (Elizabeth Banks) is arrested and convicted for murder. After three years of arduous search for evidence that would prove her innocence, which yield no results, he decides that the only hope he has of ever getting his wife back is to break her out of prison himself. Romantic, isn't it ?
|For a college professor, John Brennan aims like a pro.|
The movie has an unusual pace. The first part introduces us to John's struggles with accepting the new reality in his life, which means slow drama, then for almost two-quarters of the movie we see him plan the breakout, sinking deeper and deeper into a very dangerous world he knows nothing about, which brings in a surprising mix of suspenseful scenes, action and the aforementioned slow drama. He gets the hang of it a little too quickly, I think, which makes the plot feel implausible at times. Paul Haggis pushes the limits often in order to have us believe that the chubby professor can become a stone-cold escape artist. He makes mistakes, sure, but these moments of veridicity feel sprinkled here and there to make the character believable after the director already applied the well-known thriller formula, which by itself is too far-fetched. Then comes the final part, where John puts the plan into action, which is tense and effective and surprisingly realistic, considering what we've already seen.
Basically, if you can overlook the unconvincing transition John makes from wimpy professor to hard boiled criminal, the movie has what it takes to entertain and thrill, particularly in its edge-of-your-seat third act. Crowe and Banks give effective performances which elevate the proceedings, mastering layers of emotion that lesser actors could have fumbled, and the director avoids any stylistic flourishes in order to obtain the gritty mood he aims for. Oh, and there's a really cool cameo by Liam Neeson as a seasoned ex-con who gives John a crash course in prison breaks. It's a fine thriller, one that you might even want to see more than once, but not the definitive lesson in filmmaking.