Paul Haggis relishes the unlikely and improbable. His work behind the camera – Crash, In the Valley of Elah and now this – proves time and again his eagerness to dole out ham-fisted significance with calculated tugs at the heartstrings.
A man who cherishes coincidence and contrivance above all else should be a prime fit for a story filled with close calls and ticking clocks, like this tale of a Prius-driving professor (Russell Crowe) suddenly determined to spring his falsely imprisoned wife (Elizabeth Banks). As a writer, Haggis hasn’t met a roadblock he can resist, which puts him at odds with a directorial side that’s perfectly capable of cranking out a serviceable chase picture.
It’s suspense vs. suspension of disbelief as Crowe’s character tries to get the necessary know-how (whether from YouTube videos or Liam Neeson cameos) and plenty of money to flee the country. He’s sure of his wife’s innocence (we’re given far too little cause to doubt it), and after a suicide attempt, he’s sure that she won’t make it through her sentence to see their son again. Crowe tries really hard not to look like a ready-made action hero, doing his best everyman while evaluating options and evading authorities. Banks, meanwhile, hammers home her desperation and defeat in the face of staggering evidence, and their scenes together give the ensuing chase a bit of heart behind the pulse-pounding antics.
The premise begs for a leaner, pulpier treatment, having already been filmed once in French and coming in then at a tight 96 minutes. Compare that against Haggis’ take, running north of two hours and crammed full of every possible dead end, fresh hurdle and near miss that the helmer can think of. Throwing some kinks into the master plan to keep an audience on its toes is one thing. Exhausting every last back-up contingency is another more frustrating thing, as Haggis frames his would-be thriller in the mold of his clumsier, fate-minded efforts. The professor’s plan doesn’t feel like it’s falling apart at every turn so much as falling apart according to Haggis’ plan, making one pine for the comparatively sure-handed touch of Ransom-era Ron Howard.
The thrills come in fits and starts, especially once the clunky dialogue gives way to wordless, breathless pursuit under and through the streets of Pittsburgh. Danny Elfman’s score is suitably tense, and Jo Francis’ editing doesn’t sabotage the action beats whenever they flare up. But then, sure enough, Haggis works the home stretch for every red herring and about-face he hasn’t already wedged in there, squandering what modest momentum the film had been building up to that point.
There’s an interesting concept at play here, of a family first accused of a crime and forced to break the law, and then faced with being potentially exiled to a permanent vacation from their all-American lives. Haggis wouldn’t know that, though – he’s Canadian, after all – and The Next Three Days ultimately focuses more on the unlikely and improbable than the unthinkable, the unpredictable and the truly exciting.
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