“The Next Three Days,” starring Russell Crowe and Elizabeth Banks, starts off slowly and stays that way for about two-thirds of its length. But when it picks up steam, the action will suck you in. Director/screenwriter Paul Haggis, working with a script from a French film, shows the kind of thriller chops that his screenplays for the last two Bond films have demonstrated. He also pulls from his actors absorbing performances.
In particular, Crowe is a surprise, playing distinctly against type for most of the film. As John Brennan, a community college English professor in Pittsburgh, he is a loving husband and doting father. His wife, Lara (Banks), a business woman with a somewhat mercurial temperament, is accused of murdering her boss in a parking lot, shortly after the two have had a bitter argument at the office. Though she claims innocence—and her husband unquestioningly believes her—she is convicted and sent to the Allegheny County Jail until she runs out of appeals.
When that happens, John begins to plot how to break her out of jail before she gets sent to prison, all while carrying on his teaching duties and parenting their young son, Luke (played winningly by Toby and Tyler Green). (A classroom room scene shows him teaching “Don Quixote,” tipping us to the impossible dream that he is pursuing. Incredibly, the monomaniacal prof learns how to buy illegal documents, make a “bump key,” and psyche out the prison and police authorities.
He gets some expert help from a seven-time escapee, played by Liam Neeson, who warns him of the risks and establishes some timelines Jon will have to respect if he, Lara, and Luke are to escape and remain free. These become the organizing principles for John’s “research” as he meticulously sets up his plan, and supply much of the suspense at the end.
To ratchet up the suspense yet another notch, Haggis adds a pair of police detectives (Jason Beghe and Aisha Hinds) who are sniffing around John’s house, suspecting that all is not as it seems. They and lots of other police, prison guards, hospital workers, and airport security all get involved in the chase, which is satisfyingly full of hairbreadth escapes, reversals, and a variety of transportation. Cinematographer Stephane Fontaine and film editor Jo Francis provide the exciting visuals, considerably aided by the original score by Danny Elfman and Alberto Iglesias.
There has been some critical complaint that we simply can’t believe that this English professor is capable of all the skullduggery and derring-do the Brennan accomplishes. (I will reserve judgment, being a little too close to the character’s job description myself.) And, to be sure, it’s a mite surprising when Crowe, of necessity, slips briefly into “Gladiator” mode. But, hey, it’s a movie. C’mon.
“The Next Three Days” is appropriately rated “PG-13” for violence and language. I’m guessing that preteens will lose interest before the real action starts. In any case, there are plenty of good family movies around; adults might want to treat themselves to a holiday thriller.