The Next Three Days
Crowe plans a prison escape, but the action takes forever to break out
If you want a solid, no-frills example of A-list talents stooping to B-movie pleasures, I hereby direct you to “Unstoppable,’’ the runaway train movie currently in theaters. “The Next Three Days’’ represents the opposite approach: a name filmmaker and star trying with all their might to pump a slender genre flick into an Oscar-caliber action-drama — and failing.
The writer-director is Paul Haggis (“Crash, “In the Valley of Elah’’), adapting a 2008 French thriller (“Anything for Her’’) that wasn’t so hot itself. His first misstep: casting Russell Crowe as John Brennan, a Pittsburgh college professor who takes on the task of breaking his unjustly convicted wife, Lara (Elizabeth Banks), out of prison.
The role calls for someone average, nearly anonymous — someone like you or me — and at this point in his career Crowe is built to tangle with giants. He doesn’t have the crazy gleam that an actor like Mel Gibson, love him or hate him, would bring to the proceedings, nor does he possess the deluded intensity of Liam Neeson in “Taken,’’ a silly movie that was a hit for that reason.
Neeson turns up for one scene in “The Next Three Days’’ as a prison-escapee-turned-best-selling-author — I guess he skipped the book tour — who advises John in a patently absurd Brooklyn growl. So someone here is having fun. It isn’t Crowe and it certainly isn’t the audience. Because the star’s presence overpowers his part, the movie’s most interesting idea falls flat. How would a normal guy plot a prison break? With plenty of mistakes, that’s how. Yet we howl with disbelief when John, needing fake passports, simply drives to a bad neighborhood and asks the crack dealers. And wouldn’t this man, upon buying a gun, already know “where the bullets go’’?
The wife was convicted of murdering her boss (Leslie Merrill) in a parking garage, and the film tries to leave the question of her innocence open via a clumsy series of flashbacks. Banks wilts slowly and sympathetically over the course of the movie, but it’s a thankless job. Appeals are exhausted, Lara’s attorney (Daniel Stern) gives up, and even the couple’s young son (Tyler Green) is ready to throw in the towel and admit that mom’s a lifer. John stolidly forges ahead, selling his belongings and plotting Lara’s escape on a large, carefully notated wall map, just in case company comes by.
The Internet, no surprise, turns out to be a boon, and both John and we are schooled in such matters as “bump keys’’ and how to open a locked car with a tennis ball. On the other hand, the hero has to learn how to shoot a couple of meth dealers (Kevin Corrigan and Jonathan Tucker) on his own. “The Next Three Days’’ fails to notice that John isn’t behaving very heroically by this point, but it does want us to know that nice guys don’t rob banks.
Haggis finally finds the movie’s groove late in the game, and the escape sequence itself is hectic, suspenseful, and enjoyably ridiculous, complete with a pirouetting suicide attempt at 80 miles per hour. Left behind in the tail wind are Olivia Wilde as a comely single mom and, as John’s father, dear old Brian Dennehy, who gets more mileage out of less dialogue than anyone else here. Yet there’s still no earthly reason for “The Next Three Days’’ to clock in at over two hours, and that ponderousness sucks the life out of a movie that should have been fast and tight. Genre films that live or die by economy shouldn’t be handed to a big spender.
Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com. For more on movies, go to www.boston.com/movienation.