What Kind of Prison Break Movie Guy Drives a Prius? The Over-Acting Kind.

11/19/2010 1:00 AM |

The Next Three Days
Directed by Paul Haggis

The Next Three Days opens with an argument about third wave feminism that nearly comes to blows (after, that is, an inexplicable flash-forward several years to a less-than-tertiary character’s off-screen death, a breathless promise that there is actual action ahead). John and Lara Brennan (Russell Crowe and Elizabeth Banks) are having drinks with his brother and sister-in-law. The bros just want to sip their beers in peace, but the ladies have it out over whether or not women can work under other women—cue mandatory innuendoes: “I’d love to work under you, John.” Lara, fresh out of a shouting match with her (female) boss, nonetheless maintains that it’s possible, while her in-law expounds a strictly gendered workplace hierarchy to keep female superiors from managing female employees. It’s an odd way to begin a prison-break movie, but it only lends greater credence to the likelihood—finally and not very convincingly explained away in the epilogue—that the whole film is a macho fantasy of female disempowerment. In the next scene (after some we’re-still-so-in-love married couple car sex) the Pittsburgh PD comes for Lara, who’s suspected and quickly convicted of her boss’s murder. See what happens when women work together?

Over the next three years (the title’s 72-hour deadline only briefly set and postponed indefinitely), John exhausts every legal option for getting his wife out of jail, or even back in court, while becoming increasingly reclusive and obsessed. As his fractured little family reaches bottom—six-year-old son Luke, played by Ty Simpkins, won’t even kiss his maybe-murderer mother during visitation hours—he resolves to become an action hero. First he consults with stubborn solo rescue mission expert Liam Neeson, who plays a published (and Brooklyn-based, of course?) prison escapee and tells him that any jail is escapable, “you just need to find the key.” John takes this literally, writing “KEY?” at the top of his mission map, and botching an early attempt with a homemade one for the jail elevators. His trial-and-error makeover into a prison break movie guy takes up the film’s middle third, interspersed with excerpts from thematically resonant exchanges in his community college literature classes. One teacher can’t make a difference, but damn it, one borderline-insane middle-class white heterosexual family man sure can. When John’s doing something right, Paul Haggis and cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine go handheld, shaking the frame excitedly. When he’s at a dead end the camera barely moves at all, often shooting him in window and door frames, unsure how to get himself in or his wife out. As the research and self-development period nears fruition John increasingly seems like a delusional madman, convinced of a purpose and supposed truth that even his wife has abandoned. For a moment Three Days seems like it could go the way of A Beautiful Mind.

But this is Paul Haggis, and as John’s plan lurches into action the cheesy sentimentality and overwrought emotional hardships give way to a more enjoyable, simpler kind of manipulation. Will Lara join this mad enterprise at a moment’s notice? Will the elevator doors close before the cop gets down the stairs? Will they get over the bridge before the 15-minute downtown lockdown? Will they get through the roadblock? Do they have time to go back and get Luke? Will the detectives figure out which flight they’re taking before they reach the jetway? Spoiler? The tension of timing, traps and diversions, the bread and butter of the Jason Bourne franchise, is what works best here too. By break-out time John and Lara’s opening scene behaviors are reversed: he’s the aggressor, pistol-whippin’ cops, single-handedly taking down meth labs (no time to explain!), driving just enough over the speed limit to not get pulled over, still obeying his GPS navigator but beating its travel time estimates by half, while his wife and son sit quietly in the backseat. Crowe and Banks follow satellite navigation for most of Three Days too, it seems, revving their actor engines and spraying washer fluid on command. Haggis, for his part, keeps it in cruise control.

Opens November 19