The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Next Three Days

Master thieves, hardened criminals, hired killers.  Movies have a way of dramatizing and romanticizing those people into something they are almost assuredly not.  The life of a real criminal has to be something different from the one we as moviegoers see so regularly.  It's an entirely different world.  If you wanted to get into that world, where would you even start?  You want to do something you've got absolutely no experience or background in and have no idea how to get it done. Sound like a dangerous enough proposition? That's 2010's The Next Three Days.

In and out of theaters in a week or two thanks to some less than favorable reviews, I missed this movie last fall even though I thought it looked good.  So why didn't it succeed? Why weren't the reviews that good?  My first reaction was that -- and this will come as a surprise -- it's a good movie.  It's not an instant classic that will rewrite the genre, but it is unique, it is different, and in the end, entertaining.  From Crash director Paul Haggis, 'Days' tries to put a spin on the criminal underworld that as viewers we think we understand.  Facing a situation that could tear your life apart, would you go down a road that could easily end with a lengthy jail sentence and maybe even claim your life?

A professor at a small community college in Pittsburgh, John Brennan (Russell Crowe) is happily married to career woman, Lara (Elizabeth Banks), with a 3-year old son. Their life is ripped apart though when one day police officers burst into their home with a warrant for Lara's arrest for the murder of a co-worker. She's found guilty and even with a lengthy appeals process looks like she'll be sent to prison for life.  Seeing his wife truly start to crumble, John decides he will break her out of prison and with their family flee to another country.  But just a professor, what should he do? Where should he start?  Almost by trial and error, John starts to figure things out. A plan starts coming together when he receives a shock from his wife. She's being sent to a different prison in three days. If he wants to pull the job off, he's going to have to put it into effect now.

Who among us at some point watching a movie like this not thought 'Hey, I could do that'.  Okay, just me? Well, anyways, that's what makes the story interesting from your typical story of criminals trying to pull off a job.  Starting from scratch, Crowe's John has to figure out how exactly you go about busting someone out of prison?  He's Joe America, a middle-aged man with a decent job who's never committed a crime in his life.  He has literally no experience with anything illegal, but with his back against the wall sees he has to attempt something desperate if he wants to bring his wife back.

Russell Crowe is a great choice in the lead even if at first glance it doesn't sound like it should work.  This is Maximus from Gladiator or Ben Wade from 3:10 to Yuma.  Of course he'll know how to break his wife out of prison.  Maybe playing on audience perception going in, Haggis makes a wise choice casting Crowe.  He's that good mix of vulnerable and worried with determined and steadfast.  It never hurts that Crowe is a very likable actor, bringing the audience in on his side, maybe even more so as a family man.  What surprised me was the acting by Banks who I normally think of as a more comedic actress.  Consciously or not, Haggis and his screenplay don't portray her in the most favorable light.  Her introduction brought to mind a word that rhymes with 'itchy.' Haggis does leave you guessing about Banks' Lara.  Is she or isn't she a murderer?  It's resolved in the end, but Banks does a great job keeping you unbalanced with a not so likable character.

'Days' is a remake of a 2008 French film that clocked in at just 96 minutes.  If there's a complaint here, it's that 'Days' is a little long in the tooth at 133 minutes.  The first 60-75 minutes are necessary to show John learning how exactly he's going to pull this job off, some plans working and others failing miserably.  A tense failure at the prison truly puts you in shoes as nerves and anxiety rack his body.  A little slow-moving at times, it is certainly needed to set up the actual break which is the better half overall. Haggis has only hinted at how Crowe's Brennan will do the job so seeing it in execution is exciting.  In the process of putting his plan together, his name has popped up on the radar with two detectives (nice supporting parts for Lennie James and Allan Steele) trying to keep up with him.  Tension at its best with a prolonged chase dominating the last 40 minutes or so, the movie ending on a high note.

Thanks to some not so factual advertising, I thought I was seeing a slightly different movie than the one I ended up seeing.  Previews built up Liam Neeson as a crook gone straight who will help Crowe in his efforts.  Not so fast, Neeson is in the entire movie for one scene that goes about three or four minutes. A good part, but don't expect a big part. The whole supporting cast surprised me mostly because none of the names were really pushed in ads.  Daniel Stern plays the Brennans' lawyer, Brian Dennehy plays John's father with whom he has a rocky relationship, former Wu Tang member RZA as a drug dealer, and Olivia Wilde as a single mom who John meets. None of the parts are very big, but they are quick scenes that help move the story along, always keeping things interesting.  If for no other reason, you're wondering what's a guy like Dennehy or an up and coming actress like Wilde doing here?

While I enjoyed the ending, I felt like there was a lot of potential to go down a darker and -- in my eyes -- better finale.  We do get resolution about Banks' character, but all I can think of now is it would have been better to not know.  If Haggis keeps us in the dark, maybe that drives some people away, makes others leave the theater with a bad taste in their mouths, but he'd be trying something different.  Even if he just went a slightly different way, the ending could have improved.  As is, it is all right, especially the final shot on Crowe questioning what's happened and what's still to come.  All-around, a good movie.

The Next Three Days <---trailer (2010): ***/****

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