Adapted from the 2008 French thriller Pour Elle, Paul Haggis’ The Next Three Days runs nearly half an hour longer, and in genre movies like this, every extra minute is a lost one. Attempting to pivot from the weighty self-importance of his last two efforts, In The Valley Of Elah and the Oscar-winning Crash, Haggis tries to fashion a straightforward, relatively unpretentious prison-break thriller, but old habits die hard. What might have been a simple, propulsive story about a man’s single-minded mission to bust his wife out of jail instead feels needlessly cumbersome, burdened by moral questions that don’t add in value what they subtract in pace. While it’s a relief to see Haggis not preaching about, say, the evils of racism, he doesn’t wholly embrace the genre assignment, which leaves him perpetually a beat or two behind.
Russell Crowe narrows the intensity gap a little as a family man in upper-middle-class Pittsburgh whose world is suddenly upended when his wife is carted off to jail for murder. Taking a break from comedy, Elizabeth Banks looks every bit the unlikely inmate as Crowe’s wife, a seemingly perfect mother and career woman convicted of killing a co-worker. Crowe believes his wife to be innocent, so when all appeals have been exhausted and her jail stay looks permanent, he resolves to get her out of there himself. In a cameo role, Liam Neeson plays an ex-con who gives him some assistance, but gravely warns him that keeping her out will be even harder than breaking her out.
Haggis digs into the recklessness of Crowe’s sacrifice: If he gets caught, he risks leaving his only child fatherless, and even if he succeeds, the kid might have to be left behind anyway. Add to that the too-coyly treated possibility that his wife really is guilty and belongs in jail, and he has a lot on his mind, even apart from the logistical difficulties of pulling off a prison break from the outside. The Next Three Days plays best when Haggis focuses on the meticulous planning and not-as-smooth execution of the break, less well when he luxuriates in Crowe’s tormented psyche. Haggis doesn’t trust the action to carry his themes across without emphasis, and his movie suffers for it.