A little-seen French thriller gets longer but not much better in “The Next Three Days.” A mostly faithful remake of 2008’s “Anything for Her,” about a man’s desperate scheme to spring his wife from jail, Paul Haggis’ middling fourth feature evinces a sometimes pulse-quickening fascination with procedural details, and climaxes with a good dose of swift, suspenseful filmmaking. But what was briskly diverting in the original has been rather laboriously overworked, and the film’s attempt to draw out the moral stakes never addresses the material’s basic, surface-level implausibility. Russell Crowe’s solid performance will attract visitors, but breakout success looks elusive.
Opening scenes briefly establish the domestic tranquility of Pittsburgh couple John (Crowe) and Lara Brennan (Elizabeth Banks) before Lara is arrested on charges of murdering her boss and convicted on strong evidence. Certain of his wife’s innocence, John, an academic who’s left raising their young son, Luke (Ty Simpkins), spends three years trying to clear her name.
But as the chances of reopening the case look slim and Lara turns suicidal, John realizes, with growing desperation, that he may have to seek justice through improper channels. Assistance comes from a wily ex-con (Liam Neeson, in a toothsome cameo) who instructs John that getting Lara out will be easier than keeping her free, and that to succeed, he’ll need to be utterly ruthless, even violent, as the situation requires. Crucially, he’ll also need a lot of cash.
Thus, “The Next Three Days” is both a prison-break thriller and a heist movie of sorts, with Lara the carefully guarded prize, and it pivots on a how-far-will-he-go tension as John maps out an escape plan, learns to make skeleton keys and secures phony passports from the local riff-raff. But it’s not until he learns that Lara is about to be transferred to another jail — in the brief time frame that gives the film its title — that he takes drastic, decisive action, initiating his bloody baptism into the world of amoral criminality.
Looking paunchier and more professorial than Vincent Lindon did in “Anything for Her,” Crowe ably traces his character’s dark descent, and the preternaturally intelligent actor is good at suggesting that John’s scheme is not merely a personal crusade, but a mental exercise. There’s a certain pleasure to be had in watching him grimly maneuver his way in and out of sticky situations, even when it becomes apparent that John is a good deal smarter than the movie he’s in.
While it follows “Anything for Her” almost scene for scene, even retaining director Fred Cavaye’s ticking-clock flashback structure, “The Next Three Days” somehow manages to come in at an elephantine 133 minutes (compared to the original’s fleet 96 minutes). Inflating a no-nonsense Euro quickie into a meaty, three-course entertainment only slows down what should be accelerated, giving the viewer plenty of time to notice gaping plausibility issues and miraculous coincidences of timing.
A flair for manipulation and misdirection — for seeding clues in act one that will pay off in act three — has always been a hallmark of Hag-gis’ work as a writer-helmer (“Crash,””In the Valley of Elah”), indicating that a thriller of this sort, with its elaborate machinery of setups and payoffs, might be right up his alley. But aside from one sweaty-palmed scene in which John is nearly exposed, most of the twists and embellishments feel ham-fisted and obvious.
The film’s vague suggestion that Lara might actually be guilty (shown in teasing black-and-white flashbacks) reps a half-hearted attempt to introduce an element of moral ambiguity and pull the rug out from under the viewer. Dialogue is wielded like a cudgel; more than once, the script mistakes raised voices for drama, opening with a heated altercation that’s intended to establish Lara’s temper but merely feels recycled from “Crash.”
Where the picture does excel is the prison break itself, an exciting half-hour sequence that devises all manner of complications and takes strategic advantage of the Steel City’s urban layout — complete with daring downtown getaways, chases along subway platforms and even a quick stop at the Pittsburgh Zoo. Shooting in gray, muted tones, Stephane Fontaine (the ace lenser on another recent prison pic, Jacques Audiard’s “A Prophet”) uses an odd visual combination of darting camerawork, widescreen framing and tight closeups; it’s a cramped, claustrophobic style that’s peculiar but effective.
Banks’ Lara comes off as sympathetic yet realistically hardened by her time in the clink, and Brian Dennehy and Helen Carey are sterling as John’s supportive if not always entirely approving parents; elsewhere, the film has fleshed out various supporting roles to mostly awkward effect (one thug is made deaf for no reason).
Danny Elfman’s score dutifully channels the propulsive rhythms of Bernard Herrmann before veering into moody electronica in the downright hysterical closing stretch.