Despite advertising to the contrary, The Next Three Days isn't anywhere near as much about convicted murderer Lara Brennan (Elizabeth Banks) as it is about her obsessed husband John (Russell Crowe), who is convinced of her innocence and is willing to do anything - including break her out of jail - to restore their idyllic life together. It's a darn good action thriller too, though a bit slow in the first half. Once John's plan starts to unfold, however, it's an effective fast-paced film.
The film opens three years in the past, with John and Lara a happily married couple, doting on their three year old son Luke (played at three by twins Tyler and Toby Green, then at six by Ty Simpkins). They're in love, passionate towards each other and seem to have a good life together. Then Lara finds a blood stain on the back of her jacket just as Pittsburgh police crash through the door and arrest her for the murder of her boss. The damning evidence? The two fought the previous day at work, the blood stain matches, and a witness places her at the scene of the murder.
There are glitches in the storyline, including a ridiculously unprofessional attorney (Daniel Stern) and a scene where junior college literature professor John successfully takes on a room full of hardened criminals, but there wasn't anything that lost me as the film proceeded to its satisfyingly ambiguous ending.
If you're a fan of pulse-pounding thrillers, The Next Three Days is a good choice, with the second half an amazingly long alternating cut between their escape efforts and the police, notably Detective Quinn (Jason Beghe), unravelling the clues to try and catch them. Like all good action films, the story doesn't proceed quite as you expect either, so pay attention.
The film's name comes from when John visits Lara in jail after having spent weeks studying the place and trying to identify a possible escape strategy, just to find out that she's going to be transferred to a different prison in three days. He therefore only has three days to try and break her out before he has to start over with his surveillance and planning.
While Crowe is a solid actor who does a good job with this role of brooding, cunning husband, it's Elizabeth Banks who is the weak link in the cast. The first time he visits her in jail after she's been imprisoned for murder, she's barely upset, and as the film proceeds, it's clear that she just can't call up the deep well of emotion that is required to make her character work and make us care for her. It's reminiscent of Hilary Swank's unengaging performance in the recent film Conviction (see my Review of Conviction) and it definitely hurts the movie.
Lara (Elizabeth Banks) and John (Russell Crowe) talk while she's imprisoned in "The Next Three Days"
Ty Simpkins has a curious role too, as the son who seems well connected to his father after three years of mom's incarceration, but becomes sullen and unresponsive, not even looking at his mother when they visit her in jail. It's also odd that he never questions the strange, obsessive and dangerous things he sees his father doing. Ty plays Luke well, but the role lacks any depth whatsoever, though it's likely that writer/director Paul Haggis scripted it that way.
What makes The Next Three Days interesting to me is the complex web that John weaves, knowing that the police are going to be on his tail and leaving clues that aren't always what they seem. Suspicious detective Quinn (Beghe) starts to become skeptical of the clues they find, but the last few minutes are still a surprise. As with many films of this genre, however, there are moments when it seems too neat, too well planned.
Liam Neeson also has a small part as seven-time jail escaping writer Damon Pennington, who is surprisingly open to being interviewed on tape by John about his exploits. When the conversation switches and is obviously about how John can successful break out of a specific jail, Damon plays along and explains how it's done and the key concepts behind prison breaks.
In addition, YouTube plays an interesting role in The Next Three Days, offering John tutorial videos on a number of different criminal efforts, including how to create a "bump key" and how to quickly break into a car. One assumes that Google didn't pay for that particular product placement, needless to say!
Even given its flaws, however, I really enjoyed The Next Three Days and found the alternating shots of John and Lara trying to escape and the police running down clues and tightening the net on the fugitives quite exciting, a fine example of smart pacing that Tony Scott could learn from in his next tediously unrelenting movie-long chase scene. If you can forgive some less than stellar acting and a few minor hiccups on the story logic, it's an engaging, suspenseful movie.