You'll forgive us if we cringed when we heard Paul Haggis' name as the maker of The Next Three Days. Although he's responsible for the screenplays of Million Dollar Baby, both of Clint Eastwood's Iwo Jima films, and a pair of James Bonds, the unerringly commercial Canadian-born writer-director is probably most notorious for Crash and In the Valley of Elah — two of the worst examples of the dreaded "can't we all just get along" subgenre. Male weepies supreme. Able actors mired in leaky, Koyaanisqatsi-derived scenarios. Haggis has a lot to answer for.
Happily, The Next Three Days provides an antidote to that. It answers a simple question: How does a college literature professor go about springing his wife, wrongfully convicted of murder, from the county jail in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania?
Mild-mannered lit prof John Brennan (played by Russell Crowe) is naturally shocked when his wife Laura (Elizabeth Banks), the mother of their young son, is arrested, tried, and convicted on circumstantial evidence for the late-night stabbing death of her boss. The jury was evidently swayed by reports of a restaurant altercation between the suspect and victim earlier that night (which we witness), the victim's blood on Laura's jacket, etc. But we're never shown what exactly happened, and so remain unconvinced.
Meanwhile John is so certain that Laura is being railroaded to life in prison that he hatches the improbable jailbreak scheme to free her from county jail while she awaits her appeal. The procedural aspect of Haggis' screenplay — adapted from the French film Pour elle by Fred Cavayé and Guillaume Lemans — kicks in and we're hooked.
In the manner of countless entertaining 1970s-style policiers, John goes about the escape plan methodically, learning from his mistakes along the way. He gets valuable pointers from an ex-con named Damon (Liam Neeson in a wonderful cameo), who sizes up John coolly: "You want this too much. You're gonna fuck it up." The college lecturer studies up on weapons and tactics and enters the night world of fake ID peddlers and meth labs, where he takes beatings and acquires the necessary chops.
Filmmaker Haggis fills in the underworld character parts with panache. That's RZA as Mouss the dope dealer, and the incomparable Kevin Corrigan, padding around the block house, cooking his crank. Whenever we see the all-too-corruptible face of Corrigan (Please Give, Pineapple Express, American Gangster, The Departed, The Saint of Fort Washington, GoodFellas, and about ninety more) pop up in an urban setting, we know we're in good hands — he's the ultimate criminal accomplice.
Amid this immoral support, all John's dad George (Brian Dennehy) can offer is worried encouragement. Daniel Stern shows up as John's attorney, and there's a cop on the case, of course (Lennie James as Lt. Nabulsi), but the story isn't about lawyers and detectives — it's about snapping the rollers. We're accustomed to seeing Crowe kick in doors and pistol-whip plug-uglies, so it comes as no particular surprise that John Brennan picks up the necessary skills and wherewithal in a jiffy. Has Crowe ever been cast as a loquacious merry prankster? Didn't think so. He moves forward like a bulldog. Meanwhile, the discouraged Laura has attempted suicide in the pokey. Better hurry.
The Next Three Days is so successful in its unassuming, violent way that it's tempting to advise Haggis to only adapt other writers' work from now on. It's the sort of movie that stakes a narrow but flavorful slice of nasty turf and populates it with a cast of squirmers. It's too long by about thirty minutes, naturally. And only in the character roles — with the possible exception of Banks — do we catch a glimpse of the stripped-down menace implicit in the original French property. But as an urgent remedy for Crash, it'll do nicely.
Danny Boyle's 127 Hours has been in Bay Area theaters for almost a week already, but it's worth a few late comments as one of the most exciting movies of the "serious" season. But please stop reading here if you want to be surprised at the denouement.
It boils down to James Franco and the music track. Filming a true story of a man (Franco's Aron Ralston) who gets trapped all alone deep in a rock crevice in the desert is already pretty much of a chess game. We all know — I hope we all know — that the real-life Ralston ultimately cut off his arm to save his life and walk out, so the dramatic problem is how to convey those 127 hours in a meaningful way.
Surprisingly enough, when the screenplay (adapted by Boyle and frequent collaborator Simon Beaufoy from survivor Ralston's book Between a Rock and a Hard Place) goes off into flashbacks and hallucinations, we were reminded of Franco's other home run this year, Howl. That film's ecstatic animated sequences, keyed to Allen Ginsberg's epic poetry, aren't all that different from the screen Ralston's fever dreams as he collapses awkwardly in his improvised sling trying to rest, his right forearm trapped between immovable boulders. Scenes of middle-class American life stirred into windswept voyages across the cosmos. The needle drops are dandy, and A.R. Rahman's music original music score is a thing of beauty. But it's probably the longest 94 minutes you'll spend in a good movie — that's meant as a compliment. We're spectators at an ordeal.
Echoes of Into the Wild, Jeremiah Johnson, and the occasional Bear Grylls episode. The story has several morals: 1) Always hike with a buddy; 2) Don't forget your knife; and 3) Make room for that extra bottle of Gatorade. The scene with the two young women in the cave swimming hole is endlessly excerptable, the grisly denouement less so. Reports of audience members fainting can only add to an already good job, publicity-wise. James Franco may well be 2010's King of the Actors. He starts out ad nauseam, shifts into in extremis, and finally emerges in excelsis.
Franco, Boyle, and company take a true-life adventure tale about Utah's Blue John Canyon in 2003 and turn it into a sort of homespun American homily for the age of digital video. Resist the temptation to mentally retitle it A Farewell to Arms. Don't miss 127 Hours.