The story deploys Crowe as the classic Everyman, equipped with deep personality flaws rather than the arrows or swords of certain past performances. It's a role he plays to perfection as John Brennan, a teacher whose life is plunged into turmoil when his wife Lara (Elizabeth Banks) is arrested and subsequently convicted of a brutal murder. Despite all the evidence leading to her guilt, John refuses to relinquish his desire to reunite his family and sets about hatching an audacious plan to break her free from incarceration. The problem is, he's no tactical, tattoo-ridden mastermind like Prison Break's protagonist Michael Scofield.
The key to the movie's impact and spiralling tension can be found in its structure, which prioritises the emotional predicament of John for the first half and allows us to sync with his psyche and wonder what lengths you would go to in his position. Russell Crowe's portrayal effortlessly elicits empathy from the viewer, which means that the final chunk of the movie - which is heavy on action - carries far more weight and drama because of the earlier groundwork.
Elizabeth Banks highlights why she is one of Hollywood's most underrated actresses in a tricky role that needs her to make the audience believe that she could possibly be a ruthless killer, while rooting for her escape all the same. Alas, the movie's main flaw emerges when the admirable ambiguity built up is vanquished with an unnecessary flashback at the end that spells everything out.
Paul Haggis's taut direction bolsters both the psychological and visceral elements. A rough feel instilled by handheld cameras exacerbates the rawness of John's fraught emotions, in addition to many close-ups that allow us to see the pain and determination etched on his face. The chase sequences are also handled well, especially during a couple of car-bound sequences that are best described (in true movie hack style) as 'edge of the seat stuff'. The use of the Pittsburgh setting is notable too, with the environment posing both a threat and help to John's plan in the murky backstreets he visits in order to seek tools from the city's criminal fraternity.
Unlike many action thrillers, The Next Three Days refuses to relegate its supporting characters to formulaic ciphers and leaves us wanting to know more about them. The legendary Brian Dennehy does wonders with his understated role as John's estranged father, Liam Neeson fascinates as a prison-breaking veteran and Olivia Wilde is more than mere eye candy as a single parent who becomes unwittingly embroiled in the rescue plot.
Managing to overcome the contrivances and implausibilities of the storyline, The Next Three Days succeeds through the sheer verisimilitude of the performances and direction. Consequently, any disbelief is suspended on a more regular basis than the Metropolitan Line, resulting in two hours of mesmerising entertainment that frequently ups the stakes until its frenzied climax.
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