The execution was perfect - the plan, less so ~ That Movie Blogger Fella

Sunday, December 5, 2010

The execution was perfect - the plan, less so

The Next Three Days
My rating:

I like Paul Haggis. He wrote and directed Crash, which I thought was pretty good; he wrote Letters from Iwo Jima, of which I thought the same; he wrote Million Dollar Baby, which is probably his most acclaimed work but which I haven't seen; and most importantly (to me, at least), he wrote Casino Royale. I don't know how much work he did on Neal Purvis and Robert Wade's draft - Wikipedia says he mostly just rewrote the ending - but I like to think he also did an overall dialogue polish, 'cos Casino Royale's writing was terrific. Yes, this Oscar-nominated writer mostly does Very Important Films That Are Meant To Win Oscars, which is why I was looking forward to his next venture into straightforward genre fare. More so than I was looking forward to the next Russell Crowe thriller anyway.

As expected, the execution - writing and directing - is fantastic. But it's just another Russell Crowe thriller in the end.

John (Russell Crowe) and Lara Brennan (Elizabeth Banks) are a happy couple with a young son Luke (Ty Simpkins), whose lives are turned upside down when Lara is arrested and convicted for murder. When all legal avenues available to them are exhausted, a depressed Lara attempts suicide - and this spurs John to commit himself to breaking her out of jail. But John is just a schoolteacher, and he has a long way to go before he can pull off the perfect jailbreak; even with the help of a celebrity escapee (Liam Neeson), his efforts are bungling and painful, and he still has to hide it all from his parents (Brian Dennehy and Helen Carey) and even the mother of his son's playmate (Olivia Wilde) who grows attracted to him. Even worse is when news that his wife is being transferred to another prison in three days forces his hand.

Okay, it's not that I don't like Russell Crowe. It's just that he's become the go-to guy for starring roles in adult thrillers in recent years, one of which I reviewed last year. (Note: "adult" here meaning it's made for an adult sensibility, as opposed to teenage boys and girls. Of all ages.) And just like State of Play, The Next Three Days is perfectly competent but not particularly remarkable. I've been seeing the trailer for several weeks now, and it didn't seem terribly interesting; my feelings were mostly that I'd be watching and reviewing it out of obligation. Until I saw the credit for Haggis as writer and director, of course.

If there's one thing noteworthy about this film, it's the sheer executional craft of it. Haggis takes his time in showing us John and Lara's life together prior to her arrest, and how their love for each other could weather all the little ups and downs of married life. And later, we see how that love is tested in the sorest of ways; the film takes no shortcuts in showing us how an ordinary guy like John transforms himself into the ruthless criminal he needs to become. Not only are his wits and conscience tested, so is his devotion to Lara; at one point, she viciously lashes out at him, in anger and despair over her incarceration, and this immediately after he was brutally beaten up by some treacherous low-lifes. The average genre film gets its hero from point A to point B via the quickest and easiest route - this one makes him work for it.

Another pleasure of Haggis' screenplay is the care he puts into crafting the ancillary characters. There's John's father, who begins to get wind of his son's plans, and there's Nicole, who looks like Olivia Wilde and has the hots for our hero and who could've given him an ordinary happy life away from the troubles of having a wife in jail. But there's also the police detective (Lennie James) hunting him down once the jailbreak gets underway, and even though he isn't introduced till halfway into the movie, he's still great fun to watch - smart, driven, and a more than worthy adversary. As are all the other cops (Jason Beghe, Aisha Hinds, Allan Steele) out to catch our hero; Haggis gives all of them interesting personalities with scant minutes of screentime. Not a single line of dialogue is on-the-nose or wasted on mere exposition or plot.

But as well-crafted as the film is, it's still a pretty by-the-numbers thriller. Innovation counts for as much as execution in my book, and there's little that's fresh and new here. The first half is arguably pretty slow-moving, seeing as Haggis focuses so much on John's character; I could appreciate the meticulousness of the storytelling, so I wasn't bored, but it wasn't exactly riveting either. The last half-hour is when the action picks up, and it delivers all the requisite thrills - but don't expect big flashy action setpieces. And lastly, there's the problem of Russell Crowe. Just as in State of Play, he's played too many badass action heroes to be believable as an ordinary schlub, especially in a film whose whole point is to show an ordinary schlub taking a level in badass. To Crowe's credit, he's far too good an actor to be entirely incredulous in the role, but a more schlubby actor would've worked better.

Yet he keeps making movies like this, in between badass action hero roles in films like Robin Hood, so I suppose he's having the best of both worlds right now. As is Paul Haggis, I guess, if he keeps making purely fun action movies and thrillers in between his more high-minded projects. (Did you know he did a rewrite on Terminator Salvation, of all things?) I am, however, reminded of Shutter Island, which was another genre film made by a prestigious filmmaker who doesn't usually make genre films, and the results were similar: terrifically well-executed, but to adherents of the genre, nothing new. So don't watch The Next Three Days expecting a unique and brilliant new thriller, but do look out for the extremely polished dialogue, writing and crafting. It's a film that our local screenwriters could certainly learn a shitload from.

NEXT REVIEW: Haunted Changi
Expectations: haven't heard a thing about it


TMBF said...

Gaahh. Once again, Amy de Kanter writes a horrendous review, one that demonstrates a complete refusal to engage with the film on its own terms. And again, it only appeared in the print edition of Saturday's The Star, but as I went looking for an online version I chanced upon Wendy Tan's review. Which is just as bad, in terms of how it is almost completely wrong about the film. Word of advice to Ms. de Kanter and Ms. Tan: you review the movie you watched, not the movie you'd rather be watching.

Anonymous said...

"Refusal to engage with a movie on it's own terms..." I love that! If I ever make a movie that people don't like I think I will say that- can I borrow that line if I need it? ;)

Art Music and Independent Film

TMBF said...

@Virgil: It's not meant to be an all-purpose repudiation of negative criticism, but yes, go ahead. :)