It’s difficult to discern why Paul Haggis was so taken with Fred Cavaye’s 2008 French thriller “Anything for Her” that he chose to adapt it for his new picture. What’s clear is that in its English version as “The Next Three Days,” the tale of a husband’s extraordinary effort to break his wife, who’s been convicted of murder, out of prison comes across as borderline absurd. Partially that’s because despite a typically intense performance by Russell Crowe, it never achieves a sense of plausibility, being plotted more like a potboiler that might under other circumstances have wound up on cable TV. (The chain of climaxes gets especially ludicrous, capped by a “what really happened” postscript reminiscent of the endings of ABC’s current bomb series, “The Whole Truth.”) But that’s connected to a second defect—a running-time well over two hours. Cavaye’s version lasted only ninety-six minutes, following the rule that a suspense picture should move fast, not giving viewers time to notice the contrivances and illogicalities. Haggis’ remake violates that principle to its detriment.
Crowe stars as John Brennan, a literature professor at a Pittsburgh university whose wife Lara (Elizabeth Banks) is accused and convicted of killing her boss. After her final appeal is turned down, John decides that his only choice is to bust her out of the slammer. But that will require money, specialized skills, firearms, a very, very good plan, lots of guts and even more luck.
Much of the plot is devoted to Brennan’s methodical planning of the escape. He visits with an ex-con (Liam Neeson, in a pointless one-scene cameo) who offers some general pointers and emphasizes how the deck will be stacked against him—something that becomes clear when one of his dry-runs proves an embarrassing failure. He depends on his parents (Helen Carey and Brian Dennehy, the latter doing his gruff shtick as the dad who’s always been standoffish) to help him take care of his young son Luke (Ty Simpkins) while he organizes his scheme. And he makes unsavory contacts to get the phony documents and guns he needs, although he finds that interacting with the criminal underclass has significant dangers.
Yet he persists, going so far as to secure the money he suddenly requires after his wife is to be transferred to another prison by robbing a drug-dealer (Kevin Corrigan) in a literally explosive way. And when the time comes, he has an elaborate plan set up to elude the cops (one of whom, played by Lennie James, gets suspicious of him early on), complete with intricate diversions and hair’s-breadth escape tactics that have to work with clockwork precision (but, as it turns out, can be finessed when a last-second bump in the road inevitably shows up).
Individually these sequences are all played well enough, but taken together they grow increasingly hard to swallow. And an attempt to add some uncertainty about Lara’s innocence to the mix comes across as half-hearted, especially given that revelatory flashback. Nor does the final act’s breathless chase scenes achieve the level of excitement Haggis is aiming for, despite taking good advantage of the Pittsburgh locales. Part of the problem is that when they arrive, the excessive running-time has already resulted in an “Are we there yet?” attitude (or more properly, a “Why aren’t we there yet?” one). But the fact that they’re choreographed without much style also contributes to a growing feeling of impatience.
This is largely a one-man show, with Crowe doing the heavy lifting, and he does a creditable job, although he can’t quite convince us that this academic could be transformed quite so easily into the action hero of the final half-hour. No one else makes a particularly strong impression, though Banks is fine.
On the technical side, the picture is adequate without being outstanding, with okay work from cinematographer Stephane Fontaine complemented by Danny Elfman’s supportive score.
But Jo Francis’ editing might have been more rigorous; this movie really needs to be tauter in order to paper over the plot holes and logical lapses. Maybe it should have been “The Next Two Days.”