Silver Screen: The Next Three Days ***
First a quick anecdote: A filmmaker friend of mine from college, Dave, moved to Los Angeles, and in his first week as a Californian nabbed tickets to a preview screening of the movie Crash-- not the awesomely weird 1996 David Cronenberg film based on G.K. Chesterton's disturbing short story about a subculture of people who sexually fetishize automobile accidents, but the self-satisfied ensemble drama sermon about racial equality that does a disservice to the adjective "Altmanesque." Three quarters of the way through the film, Dave ducked outside to have a cigarette and found himself talking to a short bald guy, also smoking. The other guy asked him what he thought of the movie, and Dave proceeded to excoriate it, lambasting the wooden dialogue, the simplistic morality, and the overall clumsiness of the director's approach. After he was finished he said to the guy, "By the way, I'm Dave. What's your name?" The bald guy extended his hand and said, "I'm Paul Haggis. I wrote and directed the movie."
Haggis had the last laugh; Crash won the Oscar for Best Picture in 2005. Dave was still right, though; the movie is hamfisted and dunderheaded, a mostly artless piece of failed social criticism that does more to make white people feel good about themselves than examine the more nuanced and insidious incarnations of modern racism.
The middle part of the last decade appears to have been Haggis's zenith. He wrote the screenplay for 2004's Million Dollar Baby, another utterly undeserving Best Picture winner, as well as the scripts for Clint Eastwood's World War II companion pieces Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima (both 2006), and in that same year penned the adaptation of Ian Fleming's Casino Royale and the American remake of L'Ultimo Bacio, The Last Kiss.
These latter projects-- somber studio dramas, adaptations of Italian sex comedies-- are actually a departure for Haggis, whose bread and butter for years was lowbrow genre fiction on the small screen. He's the creator of, among other less notable programs, the Canadian mountie buddy-cop comedy Due South and the venerable redneck favorite Walker: Texas Ranger.
So The Next Three Days is something of a return to form for Haggis. Though this one is also an adaptation of a European flick, Pour Elle (Anything for Her), it's either a brilliantly executed lowbrow thriller or a middlebrow action-drama that fails to achieve its ambitions. Either way, this seems to be Haggis's wheelhouse. He's able to handle a modicum of moral ambiguity, which is about all that's necessary here.
Russell Crowe stars as John, an English teacher at a community college whose idyllic family life-- established with a brief, cheery look at his domestic morning routine-- is shattered when his wife Lara (Elizabeth Banks) is accused and then convicted of murdering her boss.
Left to care for their young son, John becomes obsessed first with the legal ways to extricate his wife from prison, and then significantly less legal ones. Faced with no other options, he enlists the help of a notorious prison-breaker (Liam Neeson) to help him cook up a plan to spring Lara and ferry her to safety. In the course of doing so, however, John loses not only his job and his focus on his son, but some essential part of himself.
It's not a bad premise, and for the most part Haggis executes it well. The tension is slow-burning, and all of the action, save for the movie's silliest and most implausible scene, is back-loaded. It's never boring, though, as star Crowe is equally adept at playing action hero and troubled everyman.
The Next Three Days is perfectly passable, throwaway entertainment, the kind of movie that would have inevitably starred another Aussie, Mel Gibson, if it was made twenty years ago. (Pretty much replace "Give me back my son!" with "Give me back my wife!" and you've got your movie.) It's better than the thin excuse for an action picture that it could have been, but Haggis also leaves a lot on the table. John's obsession and gradual transformation is well-played, but the moral and psychological implications get the short shrift. In particular, Banks's character seems to change fairly little despite spending years in the pokey. But all of these potential conflicts are increasingly less significant as the movie moves toward the kind of happy ending that seems both inevitable and something of a let-down.
The real missed opportunities in the film come in the form of the underused supporting players. Neeson gets but a single scene, yet it's the most interesting one in the movie, and a couple of more would have been welcome. Brian Dennehy does nice work as John's distant father, but he only gets to lurk around the edges and scowl. One scene features RZA and The Wire's James Ransone (with a bonus cameo from Aimee Mann!), yet none of them reappear in the film (and are essentially replaced by Kevin Corrigan, who also only gets one scene). Even Daniel Stern, in his single scene as a harried defense attorney, begs for more screen time. But Haggis never seems comfortable enough to explore the story's margins, instead being as single-mindedly focused on the endgame as our hero.