By Steve Persall
Times Film Critic
Oscar winners springing loved ones from prison is a popular movie subject lately. I'm not sure if the better plan is hatched by Hilary Swank in Conviction or Russell Crowe in The Next Three Days.
Swank plays a woman slogging through law school and courtrooms for 20 years to get her brother released. Crowe plays a guy who has, well, the next three days to do the same for his wife. His scheme is illegal, of course, a prison break-in arranged with all sorts of shady characters. (Insert your own lawyer joke here.)
Neither film is a joy to sit through. Of the two, The Next Three Days is more disappointing because it's being sold as an action flick, with Crowe giving off a Mad Mel type of smolder under dramatically placed latex lacerations. The preview trailer manages to display much of the action in a movie otherwise steeped in procedure — how do you unlock a car door with a tennis ball? — and dubious logic.
Crowe plays John Brennan, a community college professor whose wife, Lara (Elizabeth Banks), gets hauled away on a murder charge. She's as innocent as Swank's brother, but circumstantial evidence says differently. Prison is not wearing well on Lara, and after a few years she's ready to tell John to go on with his life, and perhaps end hers. Ah, but true love can't remain jailed.
Armed with Google and a one-scene appearance by Liam Neeson as a jailbreak expert (thanks again, trailer), John begins devising a plan. Writer-director Paul Haggis (Crash, Million Dollar Baby) is positive that withholding information while John makes A Beautiful Mind flow charts and deals with bad dudes will keep it interesting. Haggis is wrong.
The filmmaker pays less attention than usual to character development, allowing everyone a single trait: grimly determined for John, grimly neurotic for Lara, grimly supportive by his father (Brian Dennehy) and grimly focused for a detective (Lennie James). The sore-thumb exception is Olivia Wilde as a playground acquaintance confused about John's reluctance to return her flirting.
There's a nifty twist at the climax to send less picky moviegoers out of the theater feeling they got their money's worth. But after everything before, it's a transparent lunge for excitement after little existed. At a recent screening, I was amused by the audience laughing at several moments on screen that didn't seem intended as comic relief. I'm guessing they were desperate for something to enjoy.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at tampabay.com/blogs/movies.