The Next Three Days (2010)

There are two reasons to release a new movie against the unstoppable juggernaut that is Harry Potter: you've got a great movie and you're hoping to capitalize on counter-programming and grab the miniscule Potter Resistance audience, or, you've got a movie that's not especially good or marketable, and you're hoping to let it sink into obscurity without attracting too much attention. In the case of The Next Three Days, a jailbreak thriller starring Russell Crowe and directed by Paul Haggis (Crash), it is the latter. Sorry dudes, but I watched your movie.

The Next Three Days (based on the French film Pour Elle) takes about 15 minutes to establish the plot. John and Lara Brennan (Crowe and Elizabeth Banks) are a Pittsburgh couple with a young son. John teaches literature (Don Quixote, to be exact) at a community college; Lara is diabetic, and has an unspecified job, but importantly, she has a furious argument with her boss. The next day, she's arrested for murdering said boss, by bludgeoning her in a parking lot with a fire extinguisher. Slam, bam, three years go by, she's in jail, and all her appeals are exhausted. Did she do it? The evidence is against her: fingerprints, blood stains on her raincoat, the argument, motive and opportunity. John has faith in his wife; she grows despondent in the hoosegow. Thus begins John's transformation from shlubby, tweed-wearing professor to jailbreak mastermind. When Lara is scheduled to be transferred to the penitentiary in three days, John's planning goes into overdrive.

The remainder of the movie is essentially a very detailed guide to how to break your wife out of jail in three days. The internet is a big help: you can apparently watch all kinds of detailed instructional videos about criminal activity on YouTube. John also interviews Damon Pennington (Liam Neeson, in and out of the movie in about ten minutes), an escaped con-turned-author who offers helpful advice about the tricks of the trade, and planning one's escape. Damon cautions John that Pittsburgh, with all those bridges and tunnels, is particularly challenging. If the movie had been set in Tuscon, it would have been a lot shorter. John works out a plan in meticulous detail, with the movie crew tagging along. I'm not saying that The Next Three Days is boring. It's moderately interesting, as a purely procedural movie, but it's also implausible, and since I don't anticipate needing to know how to break someone out of jail, the implausibility factors looms larger. Could a mild-mannered professor break his wife out of the Allegheny County Jail, escape Pittsburgh, and flee the country? Sure, I suppose. Go from a guy who needs to be shown where the bullets go in a gun (has he never watched a movie?) to a guy who can confront street thugs and meth dealers? Errr, I guess so. Can he do it without turning into Russell Crowe, Gladiator? I'm not feeling it. 

And there's the problem with The Next Three Days. It has a modicum of momentum, but no drama. It could be about the physical and psychological transformation of an average Joe into a desperate action hero, but the movie is so caught up in the mechanical details of John's activity that there's no room for anything else. As for Lara, she's practically a nonentity. It's not hard to believe that she's terribly unhappy in jail, but the movie tries, in the eighth inning, to play coy about the matter of her guilt or innocence, without providing the emotional or psychological substance needed to support either certainty or doubt. Everything depends on John's faith in his wife's innocence, but since John is himself an underdeveloped character, that's not a whole lot to go on. Banks and Crowe are both able actors who could create the substrate of character needed to give The Next Three Days some weight and believability, but they're never given the chance. What is it about John's personality that would make him capable of becoming a desperate outlaw? (Can't just be a too careful reading of *Don Quixote*, and the literary parallels there are both obvious and strained.) What is it about Lara that makes it either possible or impossible that she committed a cold-blooded murder?  

In the end, The Next Three Days turns into an action movie, with the requisite high speed chase. A trio of police detectives (Jason Beghe, Aisha Hinds, and Lennie James -- all actors the movie could have used a lot more of) exist to turn the gears and create some momentary speed and peril, but there's nothing particularly plausible about the way they almost instantaneously figure out that the game is afoot. Either the Pittsburgh police department is incredibly efficient, or they operate in a parallel Pittsburgh where time moves at a different pace. The Next Three Days is all about technique and mechanics -- and the movie itself is technically and mechanically sound until the turbo-boosted end, when the engine starts to groan.