I realize it sounds sorta odd to say that one of the reasons I really, really love The Next Three Days is that it feels years long. Usually it’s a sign of a bad movie when you look at your watch and you can’t believe that only an hour has gone by. But it’s not that this action thriller drags, because it doesn’t. Just the opposite: it is so thoroughly enthralling that it scooped me up into its world and made me so much a part of it that I forgot I was sitting in a screening room watching a movie. I was living it. An hour in, when I was astonished to discover we were only an hour in — it felt like we’d had a full movie’s worth of gripping popcorn excitement already — I was then instantly thrilled to realize that that meant there was another hour of gripping popcorn excitement to go.
It probably didn’t hurt that I’m generally thoroughly enthralled by Russell Crowe: I make no secret of that, and I’m sure that that helped me lose myself in The Next Three Days. Then again, if I loved unreservedly every movie he makes, I wouldn’t have had to trash his misfired Robin Hood. So I give some credit to the combination of Paul Haggis’s screenplay and direction with Crowe’s powerful incandescence and everyman presence. I mean, this is basically the main conflict of the movie, boiled down to an admittedly somewhat simplistic abstraction, though one that captures the odd combination of domesticity and criminal activity at work here: How do you manage child care while doing all the footwork required to plan your wife’s prison break? It sounds ridiculous, and it should be ridiculous up on the screen (so not too much credit to Haggis, perhaps, who also made the histrionic Crash). But Russell Crowe (State of Play, Body of Lies) makes it work in ways that far exceed any expectations we should honestly have for such a preposterous potboiler of a concept. It’s even more unexpected when we know how capably Crowe pulls off the tough, competent soldier — see Gladiator, for one.
Here, though, he is so palpably believable as a nice, honest, decent, gentle man so far out of his league that it ends up putting a new spin on the action thriller as we watch him — and cringe for his naivete — as he tries to contend with the kind of underworld types he needs in order to manage a bust out of prison. He is mild-mannered Pittsburgh college literature professor John Brennan, and his wife, Lara (Elizabeth Banks: The Uninvited, W.), has been sent away for 20 years for the murder of her boss, a crime she did not commit (or did she?). All appeals have been exhausted: there’s nothing left for John to do but arrange for her escape. It’s an insane idea, but one borne from love and despair, and he goes about planning it with the kind of meticulous care that comes from knowing he’s got one chance to pull this off… and that if he fails, his young son, Luke (cute, sad Ty Simpkins: Pride and Glory, Little Children), who is so very miserable will Mommy gone, will lose his other parent forever as well.
Days does not embrace any clichés of the prison-break story, and in fact actively subverts them in the one-scene-cameo character played by a brutal, if brief, Liam Neeson (The A-Team, Clash of the Titans): he’s a guy who’s busted out of prison multiple times, and he basically tells John there’s no way he can do this. So, the unexpected thrill of visiting a familar genre and finding something new is compounded by even higher stakes than we’re used to.
No spoilers, but: the final half hour, which encompasses the actual escape, is almost unbearably suspenseful, and one of the most intense sequences I’ve seen at the movies this year. And again there’s some credit due to Haggis, of course, but mostly, it’s Crowe’s concentrated passion driving some startling events and making us forget how absurd they are. This is Crowe’s film, and it is a triumph for him, and for us, in how he lifts the whole endeavor far above genre cheese into the stuff of great and forceful drama.