Wednesday 5 January 2011

Doing time: "The Next Three Days"

Paul Haggis's The Next Three Days is another illustration of the advantage U.S. television presently has over cinema. Watching it, you may - as I did - find yourself longing for the nuance of the generally indelicate, Brett Ratner-produced debut season of Prison Break, which plotted a roughly similar course without any of Haggis's fuss and nonsense, and which knew exactly the pulp it had on its hands, without feeling the need to rebrand it like high-end organic apple juice. Its protagonist John Brennan (Russell Crowe) loves his wife Lara (Elizabeth Banks), and is mystified when the police raid their house one night and carry her away on a murder charge. After Lara's appeals fail, and she attempts to take her own life, John elects to bust her out of chokey himself, with the aid of an ex-con (a flat-capped Liam Neeson, continuing his post-Star Wars slide into junk) and YouTube videos with titles such as How to Unlock Your Car With a Tennis Ball. Truly, the man's ingenuity knows no bounds.

In remaking 2008's French thriller Pour Elle/Anything for Her, Haggis - writer/director of the Oscar-winning Crash - has sought to add a veneer of class to proceedings. We're offered the dignified appearance of Brian Dennehy as Crowe's father (the father-son leavetaking is the sole moment of subtlety in the picture), and the hero is given a job teaching Don Quixote to perky uni students. "Couldn't it be about the triumph of irrationality?," one of them asks, and it's clear Cervantes is here being used to justify not only John Brennan's actions, but the way Haggis's wider plot keeps tilting, with increasing absurdity, at a variety of windmills. There's a major problem from the off, in that - despite an opening brouhaha in a fancy-pants restaurant with her brother-in-law's girlfriend over the thorny topic of gender roles in the modern workplace - you don't buy for a minute that the willowy Banks would be capable of braining someone with a fire extinguisher, much less that someone in her social position would be railroaded by the legal system for doing so.

There's also a credibility issue with the hero's steep learning curve. In the process of freeing Lara, Crowe's man of books will have to turn his hand to the lathe, in order to manufacture a so-called "bump key", such as might open any lock; he has also to get the shit kicked out of him while sourcing the phony passports that might effectuate their escape. During a prison visit, he's spurred on only further by his wife's exasperated accusation: "You really don't live in the same world we do". In other words, John Brennan has to prove himself in his wife's eyes as capable as she might have been of taking a life, or at least of taking action. (Listen out for Banks's gasp of breathy, delighted surprise when her screen husband finally gets his gun out in the back of an ambulance. Who's your daddy?)

In a film with weird echoes of Dustin Hoffman projects (Neeson references Papillon, and the scenes of Crowe fathering in the park feel indebted to Kramer vs. Kramer), we might read Brennan's predicament as a decorous, coffee-table retelling of Straw Dogs, which similarly insisted its bespectacled-intellectual hero needed to man up if he knew what was good for him and his wife; and while the nerdy Hoffman was well cast as a timorous thinker, Crowe is rather less well so: Haggis has, rather clumsily, to insert a shot of Big Russ's lower lip trembling during visiting hours to convince us of any sensitivity that needs going away. Essentially, then, we're waiting for the lead to start smashing heads together and doing what a man's gotta do - again, Haggis acknowledges as much with the teaser shot of our hero, bloodsoaked in a speeding car, slipped in just before the opening credits.

Between this and the recent Robin Hood, Crowe would appear to have a real public-perception problem, one that derives in part from a misunderstanding of what audiences responded to in his breakthrough success Gladiator a decade ago: that it was Maximus' romantic side we warmed to, rather than the rugged, taciturn sort knocking seven bells out of allcomers. There have been A-listers who've made it through their careers without having to shed a tear - you think of Cagney or Wayne, in whose manly tradition Crowe evidently falls - but the imposed sensitivity of The Next Three Days becomes neither the film nor the star, flagging up as it does another of the script's central implausibilities: the one of time management inscribed in the title. A hero obliged in the course of these two hours (or three days) to teach Dostoveysky, plot an elaborate jailbreak, undergo numerous heart-to-hearts with his wife, exfoliate, moisturise, and - whilst eluding what seems the entirety of the Pittsburgh Police Department - pick up his child from the zoo? Honestly, dear reader, you really won't know how he fits it all in.

The Next Three Days opens nationwide today.

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