Paul Haggis has spent much of his screenwriting and directing career volleying between serious-minded drama and pulpy thrills, sometimes in the same movie. The Next Three Days, which Haggis wrote and directed, is a more conscious attempt to bridge that gap, a prison-break thriller heavy on the human drama. Russell Crowe plays John Brennan, a college professor devastated when his wife Lara (Elizabeth Banks) is accused of murdering her boss in cold blood. With ample evidence against her, Lara is convicted, but John carries on, raising their young son Luke (Ty Simpkins) and pushing lawyers to file appeal after appeal, all rejected. With Lara suicidal and staring down a life sentence, John starts asking questions of shadier characters: how might one go about breaking someone out of prison?
Crowe might not seem like the obvious choice for a low-key college professor stumbling through the mechanics of a breakout — rather than a guy who simply storms the prison, cuts off everyone’s heads, and retrieves his wife — but recall his work in The Insider, and also his advancing age, which he treats with gratifying candor here. Crowe isn’t playing an action hero because most people aren’t action heroes.
Our decidedly unprofessional hero does his best to look and act as suspicious as possible: rumpled, beaten down, and distracted, with a living room wall decorated somewhere between vigilante décor and serial killer chic. John watches internet videos, he interviews an escape expert (Liam Neeson), and his fumbling around with trick keys and fake passports has plenty of false starts and close calls.
This everyman clumsiness represents an antidote to the slickness of so many heist-style thrillers, although at the same time, it’s not quite ruthless enough for the Hitchock standard of an innocent man embroiled in extraordinary circumstances. But more importantly, and to greater detriment, Haggis can’t get to the pulpy stuff without his patented overreaching, intercutting John’s preparations with his college lecture on rational thought in Don Quixote.
John is meant to seem even more quixotic (and vaguely romantic) because the movie doesn’t show its hand about Lara right away; at times, her husband seems more convinced of her innocence than she is. Elizabeth Banks more often appears in comedies, and though she’s not allowed much fun in The Next Three Days, Haggis uses her devilish smile and sly eyes to create real doubt.
It’s a shame Banks doesn’t have a greater presence in the movie, which wants so badly to communicate John’s burden that it crowds out a capable supporting cast with his angst. Neeson, as the shady expert, and Kevin Corrigan, as an even shadier meth dealer, are fun to watch but don’t have the time to squeeze much juice from their roles, although Neeson does an able job of condensing his usual hero-training program into a compact four-minute scene.
Meandering and a little silly, The Next Three Days holds your attention, especially when John has to scramble around Pittsburgh, struggling to think fast. But Haggis has trouble mixing family drama with the crackling nervousness of the movie’s best moments, especially when the family itself gets relatively little screen time. As a thriller turns to uninspired meditation, that strung-out tension turns to impatience.