A remake of the French thriller Pour Elle, The Next Three Days seems to be trying to follow in the footsteps of another French action flick- Taken. If it’s not Liam Neeson’s single-scene cameo, it’s the general idea of a man who takes on a threat to his family by whatever means necessary. And while Taken was a pretty blatant masturbation fantasy for any father of a little girl who’s growing up and growing away from him, it had the good sense to be short, action-packed, and so resolutely black-and-white that you never once questioned rooting for the hero as he blazed a path of destruction and wife-wounding across France. Paul Haggis’ thriller wants to have its cake and eat it too though, by delivering a heist-style prison-escape filled with clever gags, chock full of pathos, and all centered around an even more every everyman. Unfortunately, the result is a bloated, over-long mess, the pace of which slips gears between exciting and dull like a broken transmission.
In Haggis’ film, John (Russell Crowe) and Lara (Elizabeth Banks) are living a quiet suburban life, raising their small child, sexing, and having playfully argumentative dinners with friends. You get the sense of marital Nirvana until quite suddenly the police barge in, drag Lara away with accusations of murder, and then instantly we’re several years in the future after Lara’s appeals have run dry. We get the picture of a tiring string of court battles and familial separation that have distanced little Luke from his mother, even if John is still utterly convinced of his wife’s innocence and has no intentions of quitting the fight. It becomes all too clear though, that lawyers and courtrooms no longer hold any answer for him, so John starts contemplating the possibility of breaking Lara out of prison.
Implausible though it is, this would be a perfectly acceptable set-up for a solid thriller if Haggis wasn’t dedicated to muddying the plot and drive of the film at every turn. The first mistake is that Lara’s innocence is presented to us as fact only through John’s faith, and in fact, the circumstances we’re given make it seem much more likely that she did it! The majority of what we see of Lara before she’s in the slammer is of her in an argument with a friend, which is not nearly enough to consider a character capable of murder, but it doesn’t color the situation in her favor. It’s exciting how immediately the story jumps to post-arrest, but it sets our relationship with Lara off on such a wrong foot that it never really recovers. Considering the lengths John will go to in the film to get her out, our less-than-crystal-clear understanding of her and her innocence is a serious strike against the film.
John starts off as a harmless, slightly submissive college professor- the idea is that he’s going to go from zero to conspiratorial escape-mission genius and thus be more relatable to all of us who aren’t already CIA operatives. Much of the film is dedicated to John googling, youtubing, and camera-phoning his way to expertise in all manner of handy tricks like breaking into cars and forging master keys (you could try this at home!). His research is so thorough that he even tracks down a celebrated prison escapist played by Liam Neeson in a a very brief appearance. Neeson is fun, laying out in his Irish brogue a few suspiciously specific ticking clocks along with general philosophical advice for any burgeoning master criminal. The next hour or so of the film is John carefully laying out his plan, gathering recon, and constructing a very production-designed schematic of his plan on a bedroom wall. It’s here that the film grinds to a halt and loses all traction as it saddles itself with setting up more ticking-clocks (that the pacing will often ignore), spending time with John’s family, and introducing a single-parent woman who expresses interest in John. Most of these things are pretty much useless. The scenes with John’s parents only serve to make it more clear how silly this idea is of breaking his murder-convicted wife out of prison, fleeing the country, and uprooting their already-damaged son. I suppose this is meant to make John seem even more dedicated to preserving his family, but his plan really is quite stupid, even from that perspective. The “other woman” is also a totally inert addition, as she never meaningfully tempts John to move on and seek happiness and a normal life elsewhere. Ultimately she’s becomes a babysitter that the film blows five to ten minutes of screentime to set up. Even all of that fun internet research and those lock-picking tricks are thrown out of the window when the film itself seems to acknowledge how implausible a prison break would be, and instead cheats with John sneaking some modified papers into Lara’s file, which gets her transported to a hospital.
As unfair as it might be to overdo the comparison to Taken, the film invites us to examine that contrast by nature of its hyper-competent, family saving protagonist (if not the Liam Neeson seal-of-approval cameo). When you stack the two films though, you realize why one worked and why the other so painfully doesn’t. Yes, Taken features an extremely skilled CIA paramilitary operative tear-assing through France, but Besson and Morel understood that every father, when faced with a threat to their daughter, pretty much assumes they already are a CIA paramilitary operative. The sharper film also included a blazingly clear, morally uncompromisable goal that allows the hero to do a few edgy or questionable things, but as long as he never goes crazy we’re not going to question him offing a few sex-slave traffickers. John on the other hand, is looking to upset the lives of his entire family to save a woman whose innocence is far from clear, and he ends up explicitly causing the deaths of several people. Yeah, they’re meth-dealers, but they’re minding their own meth-business before John comes tromping around trying to steal money to finance his silly operation.
Even though John borders on completely incompetent when dealing with the underworld to get fake passports and such (which is framed as him being driven and uncompromising naturally), eventually it turns out he has it all figured perfectly and his plan strikes out with plenty of clever twists and turns to throw off the cops. This brings us to the part of the film that you’ve been waiting an hour-and-a-half for- the actual escape and chase. The scenes are exciting and often well shot, but it keeps. finding. ways. to. pause. the. action. Eventually this escape becomes so convoluted and implausible that the ticking clocks that were so dramatically set-up are outright ignored and the script just sort of does whatever feels right. And then… well, I’ll not spoil whether or not they make it out of the country, or if John ever has to make any of sacrifices he was primed for.
I do want to give Russell Crowe credit for turning in a fun performance that does a credible job of bridging the gaps in the script. Olivia Wilde is very pretty, and given pretty much nothing to do. Elizabeth Banks looks like she was on her way to giving a fine performance if the script had ever really figured out her character.
Just imagine a fun, clear Ocean’s 11 or Heat-style escape film, with a little bit of that Taken family righteousness, and then cram it to capacity with moral doubt, distractions, and cleverness applied to completely inconsequential scenes, and you’ll get the right idea of what The Next Three Days is like. If you squint your eyes and don’t wear a watch you might like what is ultimately a competently-filmed thriller, but the film is sandbagged by its own need to bring down to earth a scenario that simply doesn’t function when forced into the pressure-levels of the real world.