With "The Next Three Days," writer/director Paul Haggis steps into the thriller genre after losing himself to matters of the heart with films such as "Crash" and "In the Valley of Elah." The change is needed, but the demands of drama have bent his sense of timing, leaving his new picture a perfectly stimulating jailbreak movie that doesn't know exactly when to start or when to quit. Consistently entertaining, the picture nevertheless has a nasty habit of wandering aimlessly, disrupting the visceral extravaganza at hand.
Community college professor John Brennen (Russell Crowe) finds his life overturned when loving wife Laura (Elizabeth Banks) is sentenced to 20 years in prison for a murder she swears she didn't commit. Distraught when there's no evidence available for an appeal, John finds the only option left is to break Laura out of the slammer, embarking on a long, expensive, dangerous path, mapping out a plan that will save his wife and protect their young son. With help from a reformed crook (Liam Neeson, in a brief cameo), John begins to acquire the tools necessary for the job, growing more fixated on his incredible scheme as the months fly by. With Laura facing a prison transfer, John must make his move quickly before the last opportunity to reunite his careworn family passes him by.
While the whole thing eventually unravels, "Next Three Days" has plenty in its favor. First and foremost, the picture gets Haggis out of his ponderous phase, strapping on a remake (of the French thriller, "Anything for Her") with a generous handle on tension and payoff. Haggis scripts with mittens on, crudely underlining every single move John makes so those in the back row can celebrate all the twists and turns, but his direction respects the tenets of the genre, keeping matters steaming along as John plots his elaborate escape plan. For a good chunk of the movie, Haggis keeps the audience at the edge of their seats, following the protagonist as he mingles with criminal types to retrieve illegal documents necessary for a flight out of the country, while hapless Pittsburgh cops remain a few steps behind, slowly catching on to John's plan.
It's all formulaic, but charmingly mounted, boosted by Crowe's mumbly determination at the core of the suspense. Haggis actually attracts quite an array of famous and semi-famous character actors to fill in the fringes of the story, including Brian Dennehy, RZA, Kevin Corrigan, Olivia Wilde, Daniel Stern, and Lennie James. The colorful cast brings a spark to the proceedings, accentuating the mystery with a clever deployment of familiar faces. Also registering highly is Banks, in a rare dramatic detour that, while lacking remarkable dimension, gives the film another layer of unease, with Laura an odd duck of a woman who swears she didn't kill anyone, but there's some question about the validity of her argument. That is, until Haggis comes along in the closer to cartoonishly highlight the truth about her crime.
The anamorphic widescreen presentation (2.35:1 aspect ratio) offers a satisfying range of colors, emerging from bold costumes and lively interiors. There's plenty of severe hues as well, with jailhouse life gifted the proper menace, finding flashes of orange cutting through. Skintones are accurate, displaying the correct color of frustration and injury. Black levels are consistent, though never outstanding, with a few of the evening excursions on the muddy side, smothering the inherent threat. Outdoor travels in the city look much more confident and expressive.
The 5.1 Dolby Digital sound mix is interestingly separated, with the thriller mechanics capably supported by the scoring effort, which spreads out through the surrounds. Directionals are useful during the more heated near-misses, with the climax of the film highlighting a swell burst of activity and movement, using car chases to pump the action up, with a solid low-end to support the collisions. Dialogue exchanges are cleanly represented and frontal, making the verbal play easy to understand, while atmospherics are generous during crowd entanglements and jail visits.
English, English SDH, and Spanish subtitles are offered.
The feature-length audio commentary with director Paul Haggis, producer Michael Nozik, and editor Jo Francis isn't nearly as exhaustive a conversation as hoped, with more of a causal atmosphere dominating the track. Obviously pleased with his movie, Haggis leads the conversation, discussing how he elongated the original French film, dealt with Pittsburgh locations, and designed the suspense set-pieces. It's also interesting to hear how the testing process helped to shape the film, with clarifications needed on plot turns and supporting characters. However, several dead spots and a few play-by-play stretches kill the mood.
"Making 'The Next Three Days'" (18:31) is a featurette made for pay cable exhibition that spotlights the creative process, interviewing cast and crew on-set for their thoughts on motivation and Haggis's execution. Much of the information here is repeated in the commentary, making the mini-doc a bit of a drag. However, BTS footage is included, along with Crowe's growly perspective, which is always amusing to watch.
"The Men of 'The Next Three Days'" (6:47) pares down the perspective to the boys in the band -- a celebration of Crowe, Dennehy, and Neeson, highlighting their thespian dedication and star quality.
"True Escapes for Love" (7:38) is a segment for "America's Most Wanted" hosted by actor Jason Beghe, discussing a few fugitive cases where love toppled rational thought.
"Cast Moments" (2:25) is the gag reel for the film, displaying an amusing run of mix-em-ups from the cast, with Crowe revealed to be quite a jester.
"Deleted Scenes" (12:39) don't restore any grand moments of plot to the picture, instead concentrating on John's world of neighbors, helpers, and jail visits, highlighting a fuller sense of life outside of his master plan.
"Extended Scenes" (6:18) make more room for character moments, returning John's brother to the mix and highlighting visions of Laura inside his empty home. Also included is the full bump key instructional video.
A Theatrical Trailer has not been included.
The last 45 minutes of the movie are devoted to the big chase, allowing Haggis to exercise his action staging muscles with car accidents and stunts, making terrific use of Pittsburgh locations. However, it soon wears thin as the screenplay fails to locate a suitable closer, dragging to a point of absurdity as the near-misses mount. Haggis makes obvious moves to stir up the viewer, but he gets far too grabby, and what should be a lean 90-minute-long movie stretches past the two-hour mark, successfully beating a dead horse in an attempt to bleed John's nightmare for every drop of suspense. Haggis doesn't know when to quit, eventually choking out a perfectly acceptable popcorn thriller.