'The Next Three Days' (PG-13)

In The Next Three Days, his third outing as director, filmmaker Paul Haggis (Crash, In the Valley of Elah) sets aside the socio-political commentary and hunkers down to craft a pressure cooker of a thriller. If only he had kicked the heat up a few notches. This remake of the 2008 French thriller Pour Elle is a half-hour longer, less suspenseful and hobbled by a slacker pace. Haggis wants to use the extra time to make the viewer invest more fully in the plight of his characters, but the story is so preposterous that the effort is wasted. This is a picture that should be constantly moving, not dawdling, from one thing to the next.

Still, the what-would-you-do? premise is hugely effective and sinks its hooks in early. John (Russell Crowe) and Lara (Elizabeth Banks) are a happily married couple with a bright 6-year-old son (Ty Simpkins) and a healthy sex life. In the film’s opening scene, which shows the couple at a restaurant with friends, Lara becomes provoked and unleashes a fiery temper, but everyone gets angry from time to time.

Then, the next morning, as the family is having breakfast , the cops burst in and arrest Lara of murdering her boss. The physical evidence is overwhelming: Lara’s fingerprints are all over the fire extinguisher used to bash in the dead woman’s head; there’s a large blood stain on the back of Lara’s jacket, and co-workers had watched the women get into a heated argument earlier in the day.

To John’s astonishment, Lara is convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. Three years of appeals later, his lawyer (Daniel Stern) tells John they’ve run out of options: She’s never getting out. But after she attempts suicide in her cell, John realizes that the court’s ruling is simply not an option. He believes his wife is innocent, and he refuses to watch her rot in jail.

Some of the best sequences in The Next Three Days focus on John, a mild-mannered college professor, as he figures out exactly how you break someone out of prison. First, he contacts the author of a book about a man (Liam Neeson in a terrific cameo) who pulled the trick off nine times. John learns he’s going to need passports, a gun, a willingness to turn violent and lots and lots of cash. Haggis strives to keep the early portions of the movie firmly grounded in reality: When John approaches a street drug dealer and asks if he knows of any way to score fake passports, the result probably resembles what would happen if you or I tried the same thing.

Like the best how-to movies, The Next Three Days also teaches you things you didn’t know, such as the way to create a key that will open any lock (there’s tremendous suspense when John tries to use a dummy key in full view of prison guards and security cameras, and it snaps inside the keyhole). Other moments stretch credibility far past the breaking point: When John is desperate for money, he raids the home of a crystal-meth dealer at gunpoint and suddenly becomes an action hero, dodging bullets and blowing away baddies like Bruce Willis in Die Hard.

Haggis makes some half-hearted efforts at making us wonder whether Lara may be guilty, but he’s not much for dubiousness, so we never really question her innocence. The prison break, once it finally arrives, is admittedly exciting and filled with unexpected twists, but it’s a bit of a slog to get there. The Next Three Days might have fared a lot better if the screenwriters had stuck to The Next Two Days.

Cast: Russell Crowe, Elizabeth Banks, Michael Buie, Olivia Wilde, Ty Simpkins, Daniel Stern, Kevin Corrigan, Liam Neeson.

Director: Paul Haggis.

Screenwriters: Paul Haggis, Fred Cavaye, Guilliame Lemans.

Producers: Olivier Delbosc, Paul Haggis, Marc Missonnier.

A Lionsgate Films release. Running time: 133 minutes. Vulgar language, brief violence, adult themes. Opens Friday Nov. 19 at area theaters


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