Professor studies to break wife out of stir

Russell Crowe is the husband intent on liberating his imprisoned wife. Olivia Wilde plays a friend in "The Next Three Days."
Russell Crowe is the husband intent on liberating his imprisoned wife. Olivia Wilde plays a friend in "The Next Three Days."
Posted: November 19, 2010

So, Hilary Swank puts herself through college and law school, overcomes bureaucratic hurdles and legal road blocks, and wrecks her marriage, all to free her wrongly imprisoned brother, charged with murder, in Conviction.

Well, none of that for Russell Crowe.

In Paul Haggis' two-thirds terrific thriller, The Next Three Days, Crowe plays John Brennan, a Pittsburgh college professor whose wife has been arrested for killing her boss. She's tried, convicted, and sent to jail. Time passes. John is left taking care of the couple's young son. The case is appealed. Meanwhile, Elizabeth Banks, as Lara Brennan, is stuck in a cell in a red jumpsuit, her hair getting dirtier, her face glummer.

And then, all legal avenues exhausted, John, with the help of YouTube instructional videos, Google searches, and a chat with a veteran prison escapee (Liam Neeson, in a nifty cameo), maps out how he's going to get his wife out of the slammer.

Adapted from a French suspenser, Anything for Her, and carrying itself like a solid B-movie noir, The Next Three Days follows Crowe as he goes from teaching Don Quixote ("belief in virtue," he tells his students, "is more imporant than virtue itself") to learning locksmith techniques to planning a future for Lara and their boy. A future that necessitates a change of locale, new identities, and a truckload of money.

Haggis, a veteran of TV cop shows and legal dramas before he started writing for Clint Eastwood (Million Dollar Baby, Letters From Iwo Jima) and winning Oscars (for the race-relations soap, Crash), has taken French filmmaker Fred CavayƩ's premise and run with it. That is, until The Next Three Days' final half-hour - when some prolonged, pace-killing police chases undermine a lot of the taut, suspenseful business that has come before.

On screen for most of the film's two hours-plus, Crowe is tamped down but intense. He's the quietly obsessed spouse, immersing himself in stuff that literature professors don't normally have to deal with. Like arranging for fake passports. Or getting a gun. Or heisting a crack dealer.

Banks, who spends a good part of The Next Three Days behind bars, shows range well beyond the raunchy farces and romantic comedies that have so far defined her career; there are emotionally tough scenes here, and the actress acquits herself with a stony stoicism.

The releases of Conviction and The Next Three Days within a month of each other may suggest that America's criminal justice system is in need of serious repair (and perhaps it is). But apart from a core similarity - a dedicated protagonist setting out to free an incarcerated loved one - really, these are different animals. Conviction, for one, is based on a true story, and it has Oscar lust written all over it.

The Next Three Days is genre fare - no pretensions, no nonsense. And if the criminal justice system is broke, heck, what's wrong with breaking some locks, and breaking the law?


Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/onmovies/

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