Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Next Three Days

Director: Paul Haggis
Starring: Russell Crowe, Elizabeth Banks, Liam Neeson, Brian Dennehy, Olivia Wilde, Jason Beghe
Running Time: 122 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

The Next Three Days is a thriller almost too smart for its own good, but gets away with it by making sense. It's 90 minutes of set-up and 30 of payoff but the suspenseful final half hour makes it all worth it, with a script that succeeds in convincing us what we're watching is plausible, even if it probably isn't. It's refreshing to see smart law enforcement officers unable to catch the protagonist not because they're dumb, but because he's smart, did his research and considered the options. This isn't the "pulse-pounding" popcorn action movie it's been promoted as, but rather all about how a detailed plan materializes and its consequences. It's also about a conviction, but the issue of the guilt or innocence of the convict is mostly left unaddressed. "Restraint" isn't exactly the first word that comes to mind when you see writer/director Paul Haggis' name attached to a project, considering he's responsible for 2005's controversial Best Picture winner Crash. Thankfully this film isn't political, isn't trying to take an obvious stand on any issues and has no real point-of-view. It's a simple story told well as a reminder that Russell Crowe is one of the best actors we have, seemingly incapable of giving anything but his all each time out. Add this to the already long list of quality films he's carried on his back.

The film opens with college professor John Brennan (Crowe) behind the wheel in a frantic race against time. We flash back to find out his wife, Lara (Elizabeth Banks) was arrested and eventually convicted of murdering her boss following an altercation one night at work. Facing life in prison with no possibility of parole or any kind of appeal Lara is visited frequently by John, along with their young son, who refuses to even acknowledge her existence. Fed up, John consults former convict turned best selling author Damon Pennington (Liam Neeson) for ideas on how to break her out and discovers that the actual prison escape is the easiest part. Damon would know, having done it seven times already before turning himself in. The biggest challenge is avoiding capture and making it out of Pittsburgh alive. He finds out time is his worst enemy and he'll only have a very limited amount of it before the call is made to lock-down all the city's exits, preventing any possible route of escape. Most of the film concerns John's preparations and planning, like obtaining fake passports, investigating glitches in prison security and choosing a destination, should they even make it that far. The entire plot is meticulously detailed and methodically paced so those expecting The Great Escape or The Fugitive might be surprised, at least until John finally pulls the trigger on his plan and the chase is underway. But the reason the chase contains all the suspense it does is because of all the effort put into building toward it.

If you actually examined the series of events and tried to hold them up to close scrutiny you'd probably find plot holes big enough to drive a truck through, but within the confines of a movie universe they work because the characters behave intelligently and know what they're doing. We're too absorbed in the details to care whether every piece holds up and Crowe's intense lead performance is why. He specializes at making every action seem purposeful and is one of the few actors capable of playing a normal, everyday schlub thrown into an extraordinary situation and an action hero, a quality that only bolsters the credibility of an already tight script. In a rare, heavily dramatic role for her, Elizabeth Banks has less to do as Lara, if only because she spends most of the film's running time behind bars. The only wrong note Haggis strikes with her is an opening restaurant scene so hilariously overwritten is almost actually does play like an outtake from Crash. Still, her transformation in looks and demeanor from a successful, high powered businesswoman into an defeated convict is noteworthy and she more than holds her own with Crowe when the action picks up later. Olivia Wilde has a small role as a neighborhood mother who befriends John and we're not sure whether she's being set up as a potential love interest, key player in the prison break or something else. The part doesn't really amount to much at all but it's a credit to the script that you're constantly on your toes suspecting it might.

For a change in this genre, there's real legitimate doubt how this whole ordeal will all end and whether or not they'll even survive. You'll also gain a new appreciation for the film's poster, which figures into the plot in a clever, unexpected way. You could equally envision logical, satisfying conclusions where they survive and make it out of the country and another where both are either killed or captured. That the film is uninterested in the relevancy of her guilt or innocence is its most fascinating component, almost undone by a ill-conceived flashback scene in the third act that gives us more info than we want. It's a minor misstep, but anyone interested in a story about someone wrongfully accused might as well just rent Conviction because this is at its best when focusing on the intense mission of a man determined to see his risky plan through to the end. The important thing is that he believes she's innocent, and even if he didn't, you still get the impression his intentions wouldn't change and the unusually logical plot found in The Next Three Days would unfold just the same.

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