Monday, 10 January 2011

The Next Three Days

Paul Haggis sets himself a difficult task with The Next Three Days, effectively trying to fuse a breakout movie with a moodily introspective drama. To put it another way, this is his attempt to make a serious action film. It's an unexpected move for the acclaimed writer-director, here adapting the hit French film 'Pour Elle'; for while he's earned genre chops on the screenplays for Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace, his work behind the camera (Crash, In the Valley of Elah) isn't exactly pacey or energetic.

That he makes a good fist of it is a pleasant surprise, although Three Days is kind of on a hiding to nothing. No matter how many anguished close-ups of leading star Russell Crowe or moody statements delivered by Danny Elfman's uncharacteristically subdued score, it can never fully escape the silliness it inevitably trundles towards later on. After all, action and drama are not good bedfellows; the nearest thing to a recent success in this area would be something like The Dark Knight, a grand drama which just happened to have action sequences in it.

Nevertheless, Haggis' ambition is noteworthy and Crowe is a commanding, riveting centre. Bouncing back from his turn as Robin Hood, one which gained lukewarm reviews (but which, in the opinion of this reviewer, was fine), this is Crowe doing what he does best: holding the lion's share of the spotlight but allowing little nuances to infect his broad, immensely physical performance. It helps that he has a strong leading lady to bounce off, in this case Elizabeth Banks as his devoted, if mercurial, wife, who, at the start of the film is arrested for apparently murdering her boss.

With Crowe's happy home life disrupted (he has a young son to bring up), the film proceeds to jump ahead in stages, until the day comes he decides to break his wife out of prison. Irrespective of whether she's innocent or guilty (and oddly this threatens to become irrelevant as the film wears on), Crowe lurches forward, brow furrowed and voice set to its lowest level. At one stage he even consults Liam Neeson (performing a one-scene cameo and also growling) who establishes a series of do's and don'ts for a prison break. We barely question Crowe's motives or the fact that the evidence is stacked up against his wife because he is a force of nature, so set on his path that we can't help but be swept along with him. And, in spite of the film's odd tone, it continues to build a tremendous amount of tension.

But, given this is a Paul Haggis film, the pacing is in fact less active than it is ambling, opening up the story's flaws of logic to greater examination. Brief glitches like breaking into a van with a punctured tennis ball pale next to ostentatious sub-plots such as Crowe desperately attempting to steal money from local Pittsburgh drug addicts to fund his convoluted scheme. And of course, once the director's set down the road towards the jail break, he cannot deviate for fear of cheating the audience, although there is ironic pleasure and an undercurrent of plausibility in the way that everyman Crowe (yeah right) unwittingly continues to break Neeson's rules throughout due to his inexperience in busting people from the joint.

It's that attention to detail which saves The Next Three Days from being a complete disaster, detail which, almost counter-intuitively, underpins the silly moments with a degree of believability along with strong star performances from Crowe and Banks. The latter is excellent: effectively creating an unpredictable air of ambiguity, so much so that we're not sure if Crowe's gallantry is misguided.

It's a credit to both stars that they're able to communicate pathos amid the later crashes and bangs; this is clearly where Haggis' film is carefully poised to rise or fall, although in the end it mostly falls between the two poles, admittedly through no fault of the performers. By its very nature, it's doomed not to be a complete success but kudos for trying. Just imagine if Crash had more crashes and car chases; it's a strange brew but you certainly won't be looking at the clock for the duration.

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