Something has changed in the world of scriptwriting. Maybe there’s something in that crystalline Hollywood water, because something seems to be trending: Trajectory. If there is one thing in common about films such as The King’s Speech, Conviction and The Fighter, it is that as soon as the film starts you know where it is heading: the characters work hard, and then they succeed, happy ending. No twists, and little doubt they’ll pull it off. The Next Three Days is no different. It’s all about the journey, rather than the destination, which seems as so predictable as to have been prophesied.
Russell Crowe plays the ‘husband/dad next door’ John Brennan, a suburbanite college professor living a comfortable life with a charming son Luke (Ty Simpkins) and beautiful wife Lara (Elizabeth Banks, of 30 Rock fame). His family is successful, happy and healthy. You might say he is in a state of blissful equilibrium. This calm is disrupted with the sudden arrest, conviction and imprisonment of Lara for the bashing murder of her female boss. And yes, it does happen that rapidly: the whole trial process seems to occur during a cut. We land in the future, three years into the sentence, and John is attempting to lodge a further appeal, against overwhelming circumstantial evidence. The unlikelihood of his success is such that John’s lawyer advises he should get used to the idea that his wife, despite her innocence, will be in jail for the next seventeen years. After breaking her the news via prison telephone booth, and being painfully aware of her growing rift with son Luke, he decides he has to spring her from prison. He is committed to giving her the life he feels she deserves, at almost any cost.
What follows is a long, almost montage-like stream of vignettes depicting John’s consorts with previous jailbirds, acquisition of skills, surveillance of the prison and battle with financial issues. With the discipline and focus of a Shaw Brothers lead, John’s whole life becomes about the breakout. There are a number of dusty corners to this film that are left neglected when it comes to plot. Principal among them is Lara’s total lack of awareness of the planned breakout, and some confusing scenes wherein an attempt is made to portray the complexity of familial relationships. A lack of mediating characters also leads the character of the husband straight into saintly crusader territory, whilst the wife tends towards the ‘unhinged’. Their son is representative of the family’s future together and of temperamental childhood emotion, but is otherwise unremarkable, despite being one of the only other characters to dominate the screen.
The Next Three Days, however, is not a character study; it is a film about a pulling off an elaborate scheme. The film is satisfyingly complex when it comes to strategy, and there is an unusual mixture of tricks we know the answers to, and those that surprise. Liam Neeson’s brief turn as a crooked but wizened ex-con provides an outline of the tasks to be completed before the end of the film. This sets up tantalising opportunities for deviation, and the result is that the audience have a clear picture of when John is ‘winging it’, and whether things are going to plan. This is critical in a genre where many films leave the audience out of the loop and frustrated, trying to guess why anybody’s doing what they’re doing. Culprits include Salt, Bourne and last year’s Wild Target.
Perhaps the only major downside to The Next Three Days is that it is entirely frictionless. What I mean by this is that unlike many action or thriller films, it contains very little tension brought about by poor decision-making. Much of the palpable excitement in a chase scene is caused by the blunders made by the protagonist, or the moment when they act unexpectedly, or irrationally. Crowe’s John Brennan seems to be making sensible manoeuvres and choices all the way through this film – right down to only committing theft against those who can only be described as ‘baddies’. Despite staggering odds, at no point does it ever feel as though his very well researched plans are genuinely about to go horribly wrong.
What Paul Haggis has produced here is a highly entertaining adventure film with little tension, little character development, and scant ‘whodunit’ moments when the viewer can piece together clues to predict what might happen next. It’s not often that you ca let an escape or heist film just wash over you. This might be the most relaxing prison break I’ve seen.