If he’s not trying to cram a heavy-handed message about Important Things down his audience’s throat, it turns out that writer/director Paul Haggis can make a decent thriller. The Next Three Days is a welcome departure for Haggis, who instead of preaching about race (Crash) or the Iraq War (In the Valley of Elah), crafts an exciting, prison-break film with a strong central performance from Russell Crowe. While some may love it when a plan comes together, The Next Three Days shows how it can be far more exciting when a plan falls apart.
Lara Brennan (Elizabeth Banks) is about to be sent to prison for the rest of her life for a crime her husband John (Russell Crowe) believes she did not commit. John embarks on an ambitious plan to break Lara out of jail even though she’s resigned herself to her fate. The Next Three Days makes a major gamble by not showing us much of Lara and John’s life before her arrest, but it pays off since it helps us share in the twinge of doubt John must feel and yet has to ignore in order to complete his mission. It also lets our imagination do the work as to their backstory rather than draw out the first act and have the film prove their love to us. John’s love for his wife is obviously strong enough that he’s willing to ignore all the evidence that points to her guilt and risk everything to get her out of the slammer.
Of course, staging a prison break, especially from outside the prison, isn’t the easiest thing in the world. John isn’t a cop or a soldier. He’s a literature professor at a community college and while the Internet is a wonderful source of information, googling, “How to Break Your Wife out of Prison” doesn’t yield many helpful search results (although, YouTube is set up as a great source of criminal knowledge). Instead, John interviews a former convict/prison escapee (played by Liam Neeson who collects a paycheck for one scene of big exposition). John learns the basics of what’s necessary to break Lara out and struggles to perfectly plan getting his wife out of prison and get their family out of the country. His timetable gets fundamentally altered when he learns that she’ll be transferred to a new prison in the next three days.
The Next Three Days is a fun film because it not only flips the prison-break genre on its head by having the break executed from outside the prison and with the prisoner having no input into the plan, but because it pulls the drama out of John’s numerous screw-ups. It’s not that John is stupid as much as every plan is subject to the whims of chance. If getting forged passports were easy and everyone knew how to do it, then real passports wouldn’t be worth very much. However, there are times when John’s ignorance is carried too far, like when he asks a pawn shop owner where the bullets in a gun go.
While I have no love for Haggis’ previous films, with The Next Three Days he has shown himself to be a capable director of exciting chases and gripping, fast-paced drama. While the movie could stand to be a little shorter and it slightly loses its grip on reality in the final act, Haggis and Crowe have crafted a satisfying flick that doesn’t beat you over the head with a message any stronger than “A well-crafted plan is good, but a well-improvised plan can be more entertaining.”