Paul Haggis is back to his script tricks with the thoroughly engrossing prison-break thriller The Next Three Days.
He foreshadows, hides details, delays his "reveals" and does a pretty good job of keeping us guessing, even if we remember the 2008 French film he adapted for this project, Pour Elle (Anything for Her).
Russell Crowe, one of the few actors able to simultaneously suggest "mild-mannered community college teacher" and "obsessed husband capable of breaking his wife out of jail," stars as John, a teacher whose wife (Elizabeth Banks) has been convicted of killing her boss. John almost but not quite takes his lawyer's bad news lying down.
"I need you to look at the evidence," that lawyer (Daniel Stern) begs him. "Lara is not getting out."
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John starts doing his research. He'll watch how-to videos on YouTube and come up with a plan, one he'll have to change, on the fly, time and again as he realizes just how out of his depth he is as he undertakes this.
Haggis bounces back and forth with the narrative, catching us up on "the last three years" counting down to the attempt. That allows the director to establish the sexual heat that Lara and John have as a couple, her devotion to their young son and the toll prison has on her. It's what justifies John's declaration, visiting her in a Pittsburgh prison, that "This will not be your life."
Haggis deftly makes great use of terrific actors in brief but important roles. Liam Neeson knocks his lone scene out of the park, playing a convict who escaped from numerous prisons and lived to write a book about it. Brian Dennehy is John's distant dad; he has no lines in his first few scenes, saving his words for when they matter. Lennie James and Jason Beghe score as cops who eye the husband of the convicted killer with suspicion.
Banks does only a so-so job of suggesting a woman who might be capable of this crime and yet who dies a little every time she looks at her future and sees no husband or son in it.
This is Crowe's movie to carry, and he does it with an earthy realism that reminds us of the actor beneath the persona. It's no stretch seeing him as a man of action, but we also believe John's desperation, his clumsy blunders when dealing with the criminal element he needs to enlist in his scheme.
Some story threads feel a little off. The hot young single mom attracted to John (Olivia Wilde) is a Hollywood producer's fantasy of a supermodel who falls for a community college literature teacher, although Wilde makes her character credible enough.
Haggis takes relish in doling out clues, false leads and red herrings (some a little too obvious). As he has fun leading us on, we have fun letting him, making The Next Three Days a detail-oriented thriller that lets us keep up even as it races to a conclusion.