[10 April 2011]
When The Next Three Days hit theaters last fall I saw some immediate promise. Perhaps this was a suitable action thriller to help get me through all of the end of the year award bait. I’m sure it’s a wonderful, artfully crafted film, but let’s be honest here for a minute, despite the endless acclaim, I have no interest in The King’s Speech. Three Days director Paul Haggis has done some things, not things I particularly like, but still, things. Okay, he wrote the screenplay for Walker Texas Ranger: Trial By Fire and Casino Royale, which is pretty sweet. What could have been a taut suspense film, or at least a nice prison break flick, is instead a plodding, overly long story full of twists and turns that never amount to much.
John Brennan (Russell Crowe) is a community college English professor in Pittsburgh. He is hopelessly in love with his feisty wife Lara (Elizabeth Banks). You learn just how short her fuse is when she tries to fight John’s brother’s girlfriend at dinner one night. John and Lara have a great life together that includes a young son, Luke (played by a grab bag of child actors) that they dote on. Unfortunately the morning after the explosive dinner, detectives burst into their home in a working class neighborhood, and arrest Lara for murdering her boss with a fire extinguisher.
Cut to three years later and things are not so peachy. Luke is having problems in school, and yes, Lara is still in jail. When her last appeal is exhausted, Lara becomes suicidal at the prospect of spending 20 years in prison, and John decides that the only reasonable avenue is to spring her from the joint. He finds Damon Pennington (Liam Neeson), a convict who escaped from prison a bunch of times and wrote a book about it, on the internet, and sets about making a plan.
In this regard, The Next Three Days is structured like a caper film. The majority of film, the first 90-minutes, is spent on set up and preparation, while the actual escape comprises the final 40-minutes. You’re right there as John hashes a plan, learning most of what he needs to know from YouTube videos, and takes a dry run, which almost proves disastrous. There are many things John needs to ask himself. Is he ready to kill anyone who gets in his way? Is he ready to leave his life, family, everything, behind? Is he willing to become someone he may not like in order to do this? Basically, you try to figure out if he has the stomach to pull this off while John tries to figure out if he has the stomach to pull this off.
It’s a decent plot, and Crowe isn’t bad as the normal guy trying to figure out how to successfully execute a prison break. At his center he is a dreamer, a Quixotic character who doesn’t live in the real world. All he’s ever done is study, and he exists in a realm of theories and ideas. You’re supposed to suspect that maybe Lara did actually kill her boss (she tries to convince John of this at one point, in order to free him of her imprisonment), but you’re so identified with John that you never seriously consider it. He’s so inept that he drives his Prius into rough neighborhoods looking for fake passports, only to get beat up and robbed by a drug dealer played by Rza.
If The Next Three Days had been trimmed down by an hour or so, it could have been really good, but there is simply so much crammed into this movie that it turns into a tangled mess. In addition to shadowing John every step of the way, which is interesting for a while, there are unnecessary scenes with the cops who arrested Lara that never lead to anything. Near the end another group of detectives, completely unrelated to the first police, show up just to chase John around Pittsburgh. An awkward aside with a single mom (Olivia Wilde) John meets in the park takes up some time, as does a series of minor asides that he has to go through to get to the main caper, like buying a gun and dealing with a document forger who is deaf, for no other reason than he could read John’s lips in a loud bar.
There is a nearly endless supply of similar coincidences, and every time you think things are about to progress, another tedious detail pops up an further delays things. This doesn’t build tension or keep you on the edge of your seat, it makes you want to turn the DVD off and watch something else. When John finally gets around to executing his plan, The Next Three Days becomes an entertaining enough film, full of all of the elements you initially wanted it to have, but by that point it is far too little, way too late.
While Crowe is solid as John, Banks, who I love dearly on 30 Rock, he’s not so good in this dramatic turn. There are a couple of supposedly serious moments in the prison with Luke that actually made me laugh out loud. Great actors who are completely squandered round out the cast. I already mentioned Neeson, who has one scene and is the best part of the film, and Rza and Wilde, whose characters only exist to service minor plot points. Brian Dennehy plays John’s father, but only has four lines, one of which is about drinking coffee. How do you have Brian Dennehy in your movie and only give him four lines? Other underused actors include Kevin Corrigan, Daniel Stern, and James Ransone, all of whom play bland, generic characters.
The Next Three Days could have been a solid suspenseful action film, but it spends too long spinning its wheels, and ultimately wastes the potential it has. It never addresses any of the moral and class questions it poses, and ultimately winds up a boring, empty disappointment.
The DVD release comes packed with a slew of bonus materials. A commentary track with Haggis and two producers has some high points, like their discussion of shooting in the prison, using real guards as extras, and adhering to the strict rules of the visiting room. But, like the movie itself, the commentary becomes tedious. You can only listen to them talk about how difficult it was to cut a particular scene so many times before getting sick of it. The Next Three Days is a remake of Pour Elle, a French movie, and they keep talking about how they changed this detail to improve on the original, or didn’t change that element because they didn’t think they could make it better. The whole thing smacks of ego and arrogance.
There is also a 20-minute making-of feature that rehashes most of what you learn in the commentary, and two short featurettes, one about “the men” of The Next Three Days, the other exploring real life prison escapes in the name of love. A forgettable collection of outtakes, and a section of both deleted and extended scenes round out the extras. You understand why most of this material was cut, the movie already runs at well over two hours, and including any of this would only have made it drag even more than it already does.