Unexpectedly satisfying

2011-01-24 00:00

FOR a movie about a prison break, The Next Three Days is very measured, understated sometimes to the point of bewilderment about when the action’s going to go down. For a movie with Russell Crowe, there’s remarkably little attitude.

Crowe plays the role of John, an ordinary teacher who lives an ordinary life with his wife Lara (Elizabeth Banks) and their young son. Until, that is, Lara is convicted of murdering her boss and sent to jail. Did she or didn’t she? John has to explain to anyone who asks that his wife is doing time for murder, but he doesn’t believe she’s guilty. The audience doesn’t know one way or the other whether she’s a hot-head who got even after a row at work or whether she was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Either way, the appeals process runs to a dead end and John decides he can’t live a lifetime without his wife.

Methodically, John starts planning. In what is a poignant and even funny series of scenes, he tries to get in touch with criminals to help him. Where does a peace-loving, law-abiding citizen start when he needs to cross over to the other side? John is no Michael Douglas having a bad hair day and pointing a shotgun at anyone who’s about to give him a hard time. He has a bad relationship with his father, but rides it. He gets beaten up and doesn’t fight back. He’s no Rambo, no rebel with a cause, no avenging angel. And so he plods along, the audience wondering all the time when the car chase is coming.

Director Paul Haggis (Crash, In The Valley of Elah) keeps the movie almost on a flatline, pushing the limits of pedestrianism before he shuffles into a jog and, finally, a bit of a spurt to justify the trailers that portray it as an action movie. It almost might not have, but in the end the low-key, reserved tension that’s kept so tightly on a leash and the step-by-step building of John’s rescue plan combine to make a compelling and unexpectedly satisfying study of an ordinary man forced by circumstances into doing extraordinary things.

Equally unexpectedly, Crowe plays his role as matter-of-factly as is possible while staying just this side of boring. By not succumbing to the formulaic, Haggis and Co. turn in a relatively nuanced study of individuals up against the limits of justice and the law, instead of measuring the meaning of freedom by the needle of a speedometer. ****

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