Following a bafflingly superfluous teaser prelude, the first scene proper features two handsome couples of apparent privilege seated round a table in a nice Pittsburgh restaurant, getting into a heated—which is to say overcooked—debate about gender roles in the workplace. So, ostensibly serious theme now slapped down on the table, we already know we’re in a Paul Haggis movie, even if the theme’s not entirely obvious relevance to our story seems a surprisingly loose opener for the Crash (2004) writer/director’s typically hyperactive dramaturgy. What this scene tells us is that Lara Brennan’s a woman worth going the limit for, one both smart and amorous—her public cat fight gets her so aroused she leaps upon her husband as soon as they get to their car. Of course, her husband is Russell Crowe.
The following morning Lara finds blood on her coat. Four seconds later cops burst in and arrest her for a murder we just sort of presume she didn’t commit. Before you know it, Lara’s behind bars and all out of appeals, sentenced to life imprisonment with no chance of avoiding a very bad dye job. Now desperately spouseless and stuck with a morose six year old to raise alone, John Brennan’s only recourse is bust Lara out. He teaches literature at a community college, so there’s a scene where he lectures on Don Quixote, in case we didn’t catch on to the fact that he’s about a hatch a plan that’s positively quixotic!
The title of The Next Three Days reads like a fleet thriller, but it actually needs to cover about three years worth of story before those three days arise. That’s a lot to burn through, and the perhaps inevitable result is that each of its central characters, Lara and the little boy most especially, never emerge as anything more than ciphers, mere props in a complicated plot. This isn’t such a bad thing if the focus were to stay firmly on the action, but Haggis, working from a 2008 French movie called Pour elle, has to have it both ways, so we get scenes like the one where we first see John visit Lara in prison. I’m guessing that Haggis wanted to use the scene to strengthen our sense of the couple’s intimacy and John’s fathomless devotion—there’s not much of a movie here without it—yet their every exchange is almost comical in its slavishness to exposition. What we get is somberness without the satisfaction of emotional depth. What we get is a waste of Brian Dennehy in umpteen scenes where he does nothing but gaze portentously. The other thing we get is a thriller that’s 133 minutes long.
There’s a nice cameo from Liam Neeson and some clever twists. Things are most interesting when John’s forced to descend into Pittsburgh’s underworld to collect the necessary illegal items on his conscientious prison-break check list. He has dangerous run-ins with RZA, a deaf pessimist, and some really nasty dudes in a meth lab whose lives we’re to regard as expendable if their termination should facilitate Lara’s liberation. You sometimes wonder if there couldn’t be something in John’s totally insane adventure that might be fun, but that would be in the Tony Scott version, and we already got a new one from him last weekend.