The criminal mind of The Next Three Days

Director Paul Haggis' latest breaks out of thriller cliches

Taken together, Russell Crowe's new thriller The Next Three Days and Hilary Swank's recent legal drama Conviction confirm some gender stereotypes. Both films depict how ordinary people react to a loved one's wrongful imprisonment for murder. In Conviction, Swank hits the books, graduates from law school and wins allies with the hopes of securing her brother's release. In The Next Three Days, Crowe takes the path that involves shooting guns, breaking stuff and driving really fast.

You wouldn't guess that The Next Three Days would become such a cracking suspense flick based on its first act. Paul Haggis wrote and directed the film, and contrived confrontations drive so many early scenes, it's like watching an outtakes reel from Crash, Haggis' Oscar winner about how racism is so darn bad. A crazily hostile dinner party argument segues to a bogus "typical" morning, in which we learn that Lara Brennan (Elizabeth Banks) takes digital photos of her husband and son every single day — an odd plot point the film never mentions again.

The Pittsburgh police disrupt the domestic bliss by barging into arrest Lara for murdering her boss. Then the film skips ahead three years, and we discover that circumstantial evidence convicted her of the crime. Her husband John (Crowe), a literature professor at a community college, has exhausted the appeals process and their son Luke (Ty Simpkins) feels alienated from his inmate mother. After Lara attempts suicide, John resolves to reunite the family by busting her out of Allegheny prison.

As a former jail-breaker, Liam Neeson gets a sharp little scene in which he tells John what it takes to escape from prison: not just the ability to exploit changes in a prison routine, but to have a precise getaway plan even before you make a break for it. He tells John that law enforcement and homeland security can virtually lock down Pittsburgh in 15 minutes, if John can even get his wife out.

The Next Three Days makes a virtue of its very lack of plausibility. While the Ethan Hunts and Danny Oceans of your average caper movie can breeze in and out of any high-security facility, Haggis and Crowe never let us forget John's amateur status. Early in the film he asks, "Show me where the bullets go" when he buys a gun, and his first attempts to find a passport forger or test a "bump key" explode in his face. YouTube, of all places, gives John some of his illegal ideas, like how to unlock a car door with a tennis ball.

Crowe risks typecasting himself as anguished male martyrs, but he persistently conveys John's anxiety and vulnerability as he places himself in jeopardy. At one point, he agonizes over whether to commit armed robbery to bankroll the escape plan. The stakes remain extremely high, for if John's plan fails, Luke will lose both of his parents. Banks avoids the clichés of a "wronged woman" performance: Since the film leapfrogs over her trial, Banks can avoid the desperate protestations of innocence and instead convey Lara's despair and misdirected anger at John.

When the action speeds up in the third act, Haggis' script doesn't rely on police stupidity, and "The Walking Dead's" Lennie James plays a detective with seemingly psychic abilities to anticipate a criminal's next steps. The resolution seems to go on forever and ties up unnecessary lose ends, so the audience doesn't have to feel bad about rooting for law-breakers.

The Next Three Days opens in Atlanta the same day as 127 Hours, and Haggis' genre flick has a surprising similarity to Danny Boyle's survival tale. Both films prompt the audience to ask themselves, "Could I possibly do what these protagonists are doing?" The Next Three Days shows an ordinary "civilian" driven to extraordinary lengths out of devotion to his wife, and while the film has plenty of whiz-bang action beats, we never lose sight of the risks and difficulties. Compared to what Crowe's character does, cutting off your own arm seems like a piece of cake.