The Next Three Days follows an ordinary guy named John (Russell Crowe) as he executes a wildly complicated plan to spring his wife, Lara (Elizabeth Banks), from prison, where she has been locked up for a murder she says she didn’t commit. Jailbreaking is not John’s forte — he’s a community-college professor in Pittsburgh and he drives a Prius. But all judicial appeals have failed, and the couple’s young son is so very sad. So, spurred by love, despair, and belief in his wife’s innocence, John turns to desperate measures. First, however, he does some Internet homework that leads him to Damon (Liam Neeson), an ex-con-turned-author who provides expert advice on the art of escape.
Damon’s how-to-break-the-law lesson — as ludicrous as anything else in this enjoyably zigzaggy exercise in accumulating peril — grants Neeson the fun of experimenting with an American ex-con accent for his one scene. It also sets up the movie’s real strength, which is generating escalating waves of plot tension and misdirection as John, heeding advice, makes his jail-busting moves. Writer-director Paul Haggis (Crash), who adapted The Next Three Days from a 2008 French thriller, Pour Elle, clearly has Alfred Hitchcock’s wrong-man-in-wrong-place psychological archetype in mind as John weaves all over Pittsburgh. Lara, for her part, has no idea of her husband’s plan — the usually sunnier Banks is an interesting, counterintuitive casting choice — and when she finds out, she adds her own complications. Soon the chase becomes its own perpetual-motion machine, one that ticks down to the last second.
With cops closing in, there’s passport forgery, robbery, lock picking, shooting, and driving too fast while behind the wheel of a Prius. There’s also a bit of tampering with medical records, the inevitable follow-up to Lara’s demonstration in Act 1, Scene 1 that she’s diabetic. Throughout, Crowe marshals his unique physical gravitas — his way of speaking with his eyes while remaining very still and quiet — to bolster Haggis’ more sentimental premise that the character represents any average John who loves his family deeply enough to declare, Screw the system! We’re outta here! While Crowe throws his serious weight behind the notion of a man angry, weary, and bereft enough of his ordinary life to take drastic steps, the movie throws obstacle after obstacle his way and says to the audience: Oh, he squeaked through that? How about this? B+