No longer content to redo its own, Hollywood continues its practice of remaking perfectly fine foreign films, with this one bowing to 2008's Pour Elle. Leaving Kimberly Gadette to wonder if the exercise is all that necessary.
The biggest crime committed in this film isn't the husband's attempt to steal his wife from jail. It's the fact that with Paul Haggis' American remake of the taut French thriller Pour Elle (Anything for Her), the story has been robbed of its bite.
Grand larceny is no joke. Sorry, Haggis, but you're our primary suspect. We're going to have to take you downtown for questioning.
While The Next Three Days' plot, scene order and much of the dialogue mirrors the original, Haggis adds 37 minutes to the zippy 96-minute precursor, laboriously applying the brakes to what should have been a breathless third act. If Haggis wanted to add his personal stamp, why not fix some of the errors that occurred in the original? (Such as the many awkward encounters between the protagonist and the crooks who ultimately provide him with passports and money. Or the extraneous use of the playground mom.) But like the third act of the remake ... I digress.
Pittsburgh community college teacher John Brennan (Russell Crowe) and feisty wife Lara (Elizabeth Banks) live in domestic bliss with their 3-year-old son Luke. Lara documents their happiness by taking daily digital snaps ... for that annoying habit alone, it's no wonder she ends up with a life sentence. However, their familial cheer comes to an abrupt end when the police burst into their home, dragging Lara off to prison for supposedly murdering her boss. Three years later, when every legal means of appeal has been exhausted and Lara is suicidal, John determines that the only way to get his wife out of the formidable edifice of the Allegheny County Jail – the largest high-rise penitentiary in the US – is to break her out of prison himself. To that end, the teacher suddenly turns student, embarking on a whole new field of study. But instead of sitting in classrooms captained by lofty professors, John's tutors include ex-cons, drug dealers and YouTube videos, illustrating such do-it-yourself lessons as to how to make skeleton keys that will unlock prison doors. But as one ex-con (Liam Neeson) cautions, if John is going to succeed, he has to be prepared to do anything, including murdering innocent people who might get in the way.
The Next Three Days is a strong vehicle for Crowe, allowing him to convey a panoply of emotions. He's a naïve would-be scofflaw, relying on methodical research rather than street smarts. He's a supportive single dad, attempting to double up on parental duties: he cradles his son by night, then dispenses no-nonsense lessons on playground bullies by day. He's a conflicted son who loves his father but can't communicate with him. And he's most compelling as his wife's steadfast lover, never questioning her innocence. When he looks at her, his eyes fill with such love that it is completely believable that he'd die trying to save her.
As for Banks, after an early scene in which she hits us with double shots of anger and humor, she mutes down to a mournful woman who finds her fate increasingly difficult. Banks does a credible job ... but stripped of the opportunity to express her usual spirit, the performance seems forced. It may be unfair to compare, but Diane Kruger's prior rendition of a frail jailbird finding herself swallowed whole by an all-encompassing grief that seems to visibly turn her smaller, whiter – as if she might vanish before our eyes – carries far more resonance.
Brian Dennehy adds gravitas as a father who's even more awkward than his son at expressing his feelings, while Oliva Wilde makes the most out of a commiserating single parent who fails at capturing John's attention. But it is Neeson's ex-con who steals the spotlight in his one scene with Crowe's John, a pirate-y fellow who knows the ins and outs – well, mostly the outs – about the nuts and bolts of the successful prison break. He immediately sees through John's ruse about supposedly interviewing him for class research, gleaning that the information he's imparting isn't purely academic. Both scripts include his character's tantalizing line, "Escaping is easy ... the hard part is staying free." Allowing us to wonder that even if John defies the odds and makes it ... then what?
Still, Haggis infuses the film with some glorious work: a speechless scene where one desolate look from John is all Lara needs to grasp the fact that all hope is gone; a heart-breaking embrace from the father. However, Haggis often ignores the ticking clock, an unrelenting reminder that John is running out of time – as if the title is all but forgotten in the film's languid stroll toward the finale.
While Crowe turns in another solid performance, even he can't bring this project up to speed.
Rating on a scale of 5 break-out hits: 2.5
Release date: US: 19 November 2010; UK: 7 January 2011
Directed by: Paul Haggis
Screenplay by: Paul Haggis
Based on the film Pour Elle by: Fred Cavayé and Guillaume Lemans
Cast: Russell Crowe, Elizabeth Banks, Brian Dennehy, Olivia Wilde, Liam Neeson, Lennie James, Ty Simpkins, Helen Carey, Daniel Stern, Kevin Corrigan, RZA
Rating: US = PG-13; UK = TBC
Running time: 133 minutes