He teaches community college, wears cashmere V-neck sweaters, carries an extra mid-life twenty around the belt, and drives a Prius. This is not your father’s Russell Crowe. Until, that is, he takes push to shove, rolls a couple of meth dealers, hijacks a medical delivery truck, breaks his wife out of prison, and bolts for the border.
The Next Three Days is an interesting achievement. Director Paul Haggis (2005 Best Picture Crash) constructs a tense, anxiety-filled thriller that clips briskly along all while keeping the audience on the fence as to whether or not they even want the hero to succeed.
The film opens with an interesting topic of discussion between two couples at a restaurant. ‘John’ and ‘Lara Brennan’ (Russell Crowe and Elizabeth Banks) break bread with ‘John’s’ brother and his sultry wife, who is explaining to ‘Lara’ that women cannot work for women. It’s a debate that becomes heated between the two gorgeous gals (dare I say – a cat fight?), setting up what proves to be a potential motive for what unfolds by the time morning arrives. ‘Lara’s’ female boss is found murdered in a parking garage and all evidence (and motive?) point to her.
So off she goes to the big house, convicted of murder while maintaining her innocence. But this is where the sleight of hand begins with The Next Three Days, because what we never get in this story are the usually mandatory scenes of declared innocence and mutual heartfelt anguish – even the pivotal moment of resigned defeat once the legal process has come up short for ‘Lara’ is played (albeit beautifully by the two actors) in silence through two-way visitation glass. Immediately we are positioned as an audience to question the validity and determination of ‘John’s’ plight to free his falsely accused wife. Did his wife kill her boss in cold blood? Is he casting his pearls before swine?
Once his attorney shatters his court appeal dreams by telling him “…no decent lawyer will take this case to the Supreme Court,” ‘John’ responds with this doozie. “So all I need to do is find an indecent one.” Don’t know why, but lawyer jokes always kill me.
However, instead of going in pursuit of a shyster, ‘John’ takes a chai tea meeting with ex-con, ‘Damon Pennington,’ played by the great Liam Neeson. ‘Pennington’ has escaped from seven maximum security prisons and can still sit in the corner at Starbucks and talk shop – this guy is good! “Escaping is easy, hardest part is staying free,” says ‘Pennington’ as he lays it out for Crowe’s ‘John Brennan,’ the community college prof who would rather be teaching his students the allegorical significance of Don Quixote than submerge himself into the underworld and begin his felonious quest to free his somewhat ambivalent jail-bird wife.
“Are you willing to leave your kid at a gas station?”
A quick word on Liam Neeson, who only has this one scene. Not all major stars of his caliber can take cameos like this as frequently as Neeson. He is an actor of such power and depth that he is able to cast a long shadow from a small amount of screen time, or just from his voice as in The Chronicles of Narnia. A true pro and an actor’s actor for certain.
Not to be outdone, Russell Crowe also happens to be an actor of considerable power and depth and it is on full display in The Next Three Days. Even the leap required to stick with the story once Crowe goes from book smart to street smart is not an obstacle. His empathetic desperation is believable every step of the way, alternately juggling his young son’s playdates and his jailbreak maneuverings with clarity and purpose. Can you tell I like Russell Crowe? I do. He is one of our very best actors.
Elizabeth Banks (40 Year Old Virgin, Seabiscuit) is also solid in her portrayal of the “did she?” or “didn’t she?” convicted murderer. She keeps just enough of a twinkle of rage in her eye to keep us off-balance.
Much like another effective film from earlier this year, Inception, The Next Three Days is ultimately a film about the power and pull of family love. Themes of trust and loyalty, of committment, and a willingness to grapple with the worse and hope for the better.