Billboards for the new Russell Crowe action thriller "The Next Three Days" pose a provocative question: What if you had 72 hours to save everything you live for? Because Crowe presumably still cares about his acting career, might I suggest, "Run, Russell, run! Save yourself."
Forget Lara (Elizabeth Banks), the wife and convicted murderer that you're hoping to break out of jail. I know you think she's innocent, but she has a really bad temper. She's a bottle blond, as prison reveals (the only thing about her that prison reveals). But most important, you guys have no chemistry. Zilch. Nada. Ditch her.
Forget the kid too. I know that might sound harsh to say about your son. But whether he's crying in a high chair as Three Year Old Luke, or "three years later" sleeping in the backseat of the car (the rest of us should be so lucky), he'll be better off with the grandparents. They seem nice, and I've always really liked Brian Dennehy in just about any role.
By the way, what is it with the number three? The last three years, the last three hours, the next three days. Who cares? About 33 minutes in, I couldn't help but think, if they do another close-up of your watch as it tick, tick, ticks toward another three, I will scream.
But honestly, any screaming should be directed at Paul Haggis, who both wrote and directed this mess. The filmmaker behind the Oscar-winning "Crash," with its powerfully salient interlocking stories of race and life in L.A., has totaled this one. Yes, "The Next Three Days" is really that bad.
Whether writing or directing or both, he's never one for nuance, and even in his best work -- "Million Dollar Baby," "Letters From Iwo Jima," "Casino Royale," to name a few -- Haggis seems obsessed with making sure we "get it" in every scene. You can almost feel the hammer poised right above your head to pound the point home. Beyond that, the film is too long on exposition in some places, too short in others, never just right.
In the first few minutes, Haggis telegraphs nearly everything you're ever going to learn about the characters, so don't blink. There is just one "fateful" night when everything goes wrong. Crowe's John Brennan is a soft-spoken community college professor. There's a dinner, and Lara, a high-end professional of some sort, goes all postal about whether the friction at work is because her boss is a woman. Duck, the cliches are flying.
Flash forward to the cops breaking down the door to arrest Lara for the murder of her boss. Flash forward again to prison doors slamming. Flash forward yet again to the appeal being denied and Daniel Stern as her attorney saying to John, "Just look at the evidence," which is a nice idea but we never get to.
After all this flashing, things slooooooow down. On the bright side, it does bring us the film's best worst moment, coming not long after Professor John finds an ex-con's (Liam Neeson) how-to book titled "Over the Wall" on the Internet (like I said, the hammer is poised). They have the greatest bad conversation in a seedy diner ever -- do you take one or two lumps of melodrama in that coffee?
Soon John's plotting the jailbreak by pasting photos and scraps of maps and scrawling notes all over a wall in his house. A lot of time will be spent looking at that wall, so settle in. Some action and other stuff follows, no surprises there.
In the spirit of "this hurts me more than it does you," because I am actually a fan of Crowe's work, I can't imagine a blander, more barely there performance from the actor. For most of the film, it's as if he's desperate not to be seen or heard. You can't really blame him, especially when he's forced to quote Don Quixote in a classroom to explain why he's about to go from law-abiding to criminally crazy.
After a creative hot streak that began with 1999's "The Insider," followed by 2000's "Gladiator" and then "A Beautiful Mind" in 2001, all earning Oscar nominations, with a win for "Gladiator," the actor has been more miss than hit. It's as if filmmakers have forgotten how wonderfully vulnerable he can be behind that tough guy scowl and sturdy frame. Haggis certainly never figures it out. You just have to hope that someone remembers, if not in the next three days, then soon.
'The Next Three Days'
MPAA rating: PG-13 for violence, drug material, language, some sexuality and thematic elements
Running time: 2 hours,
Playing: In general release