It's a perennial plot favorite: the little guy who takes on the system -- and wins, even if he has to bust the system to do it. So it goes in Paul Haggis' The Next Three Days, which is straight-up pulp, though hampered by its attempts to be "weighty."
In it, John Brennan (Russell Crowe) is a mild-mannered community-college professor who plans to break his wife, Lara (Elizabeth Banks), out of jail.
Wait -- abducting someone from prison is a crime, too! Yes, but he believes she's innocent. Wouldn't you do the same for your lovey-dovey spouse, locked away for years from your saucer-eyed child? It's the legal system that's wrong; this is just a correction, the kind of fix that only one super-crafty dude can make.
Thus, most of the movie concerns John learning the mechanics of successful jailbreaks -- he gets a crash course from a pro (Liam Neeson) -- and scoping out the scene of his un-crime. In this, local viewers can play along, because John lives in Pittsburgh, and poor Lara is locked up in the Allegheny County Jail (inexplicably described in the film as "the largest prison in the world").
Frankly, the aerial shots of Pittsburgh are one of the highlights of the film. The plot is a pulpy mess -- big chunks of the thriller are scaled back at the expense of domestic brooding on the part of John, Lara and their near-somnambulant son. If I'm paying $10, I want to see some satisfying crime-action junk, not a Lifetime movie about how sad it is that mommy is in jail. I can see why Haggis -- who gave us the emotion-and-crime banger-upper Crash -- would choose to split the difference, but it doesn't work successfully here. (The film is a remake of a 2008 French film, Anything For Her.)
Neeson's ex-con character warns John that there will be huge psychological costs to a successful life-on-the-run: Can he become the person who could walk away from his parents, his kid, whatever it takes to stay free? This aspect, fully explored, could have made a meaty drama: We're so cued to cheer for the hero to bust out of jail, yet never consider the real consequences of that action, or the never-really-free life that follows. (At no point does the film address the moral muddle of committing lots of very serious crimes in order to redress another.)
But, after posing the question early on and flirting with it, Haggis capitulates, dragging out every Hollywood-style outcome -- and high-speed chase -- viewers want. Except maybe Pittsburghers: We're always sad when a nice young family leaves town. Starts Fri., Nov. 19.
- Gunning for justice: Russell Crowe, in The Next Three Days