The true test of any director’s dexterity and creativity lies with their ability to successfully tackle a myriad of genres. It’s enough to be “good enough” in one highly specified field, but to be able to grapple with different subject matters is truly remarkable. Certainly Danny Boyle is a great contemporary example of this, as he’s been able to tackle disparate genres like the zombie thriller (“28 Days Later“) and heady science fiction epic (“Sunshine“), all the while able to slip back into humanist dramas like “Slumdog Millionaire” and this fall’s “127 Hours.” (Steven Soderbergh is another notable, current example of an itchy genre experimentalist.)
Then there’s Paul Haggis, a filmmaker and screenwriter who is almost exclusively drawn to the weighty thematic issues of assisted suicide (“Million Dollar Baby“), race and class friction (his Oscar-winning “Crash“), the Iraq war (“In the Valley of Elah“) and naked women covered in oil (“Quantum of Solace“). So, even though Haggis clearly isn’t above the for-hire script doctoring work (he messily contributed to “Terminator Salvation,” after all), it was somewhat surprising to hear that his next gig as a writer-director would be “The Next Three Days,” the remake of a pulpy 2008 French thriller called “Pour Elle.”
Would he be able to squeeze in some heavy social commentary or just let the thing ride, like when Frank Darabont, director of the beloved prison drama “The Shawshank Redemption” sleekly directed the monster mash “The Mist“?
The plot of “The Next Three Days” is pure paperback thriller: Russell Crowe plays a pudgy community college professor (of what we’re never entirely clear) who is plotting and scheming to break his wife out of prison, since she’s there for a crime she claims she didn’t commit (and, obviously, he believes her). His wife (Elizabeth Banks) has run out of appeals (her exasperated lawyer, played by a where-the-fuck-has-he-been Daniel Stern, sighs heavily) and is about to be moved out of the small-ish county prison to a much larger and harder-to-break-out-of penitentiary upstate. This will happen in (wait for it) the next three days.
So he’s got to figure out the logistics of breaking his wife out of prison, which includes, in a fascinating wrinkle that’s rarely explored in these types of films, how he’s going to pay for her escape as well as their flight from the law. He does so by contacting a notorious escapee (played by Liam Neeson, for all of one scene) and then methodically plotting both the break out and the escape route, which he does, in typical movie fashion, by pinning a giant map to a wall of his house and sticking push-pins in and writing things like “MONEY” followed by three huge question marks.
Now, all of these cliches would have been acceptable if “The Next Three Days” had a sense of humor, or clipped, jaunty pace that would be appropriate for this type of material. Sadly, the film is totally straight faced, even when the movie becomes almost comically nonsensical (like when, say, a deaf man who also happens to be an expert at forging documents, comes a-callin’) and the movie often drags, even during the last act when things get pumped up and crazy (we know this mostly because of Danny Elfman‘s pulse-pounding, above average score).
Crowe, who in recent years has taken on a kind of lumpy huggability, here seems out of his element. He’s a guy we all identify as a bad-ass, playing a loser professor who becomes a bad-ass in the process (the movie’s most preposterous subplot has Crowe exacting revenge from some thugs, one of whom is played by RZA). It never really works, and we don’t get a sense of the relationship he had with his wife because we only see them together for about five minutes before she’s dragged away to prison and only intermittently throughout (sequences where we watch Crowe shuffle through the prison security protocol probably eat up 20 minutes of screen time). The performance is fine, as far as these things go, but it’s devoid of anything that the audience can grasp on to emotionally: Crowe should have either committed to the character’s rich inner life or expressed a kind of knowing cool, like he’s aware of the kind of genre trash he’s signed up for. It’s kind of a terrible movie but it’s the latter that made “Law Abiding Citizen” so much fun to watch.
In the end, Haggis just tries too hard, with the results feeling limp and overcooked. The movie’s running time is a whopping 133 minutes, which is exactly how long Peter Weir‘s “The Way Back” is, and nobody in “The Next Three Days” is walking from Siberia to India. Often, the movie feels leaden and baggy, hung up by too many superfluous subplots, and crippled by the decision to string along of the murder mystery until almost the final moments of the film, which never lets us clearly root for our main characters, since no one (not even Crowe) makes a solid enough case for her innocence.
So, in the end, what are you left with? Well not a lot. The entire enterprise can best be defined as “workmanlike,” there aren’t any flourishes, in terms of cinematography, or editorially, that would warrant any kudos. It’s the kind of flat, high impact entertainment that lacks even the most remote sense of knowing what kind of movie it is, and what the audience is really looking for. Instead, in the hands of Paul Haggis, he takes what could have been a nifty conceit smartly conveyed by a more-than-ready cast, and bogged it down with so much unnecessary stuff that the nifty conceit gets lost altogether that by the time the final credits roll, you’ll feel like you’ve been watching the movie for the last three days. Haggis thought he was above the material, and in that head space, he delivered something below the audience’s expectations. [C]