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The great escape: The Next Three Days

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*The Next Three Days (PG-13)

Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Hollywood Interquest, Tinseltown

It sounds odd to say that one of the reasons I love The Next Three Days is that it feels years long. It's not that this action thriller drags, because it doesn't. Just the opposite: It is so thoroughly enthralling that it scooped me up into its world and made me a part of it. An hour in, I was astonished to discover we were only that far in — it felt like we'd had a full movie's worth of gripping excitement already.

I'm generally thoroughly enthralled by Russell Crowe, and I'm sure that factor helped me lose myself in The Next Three Days. Then again, if I loved unreservedly every movie he makes, I would have found a way not to trash Robin Hood. So I give some credit to the combination of Paul Haggis' screenplay and direction with Crowe's powerful incandescence and everyman presence.

How do you manage child care while doing all the footwork required to plan your wife's prison break? It sounds ridiculous, and it should be ridiculous up on the screen. But Crowe makes it work in ways that far exceed any expectations we should honestly have for such a preposterous potboiler of a concept.

It's even more unexpected when we know how capably Crowe pulls off the tough, competent soldier, à la Gladiator, for one. Here, he is so palpably believable as a nice, honest, decent, gentle man so far out of his league, that it ends up putting a new spin on the action thriller as we watch him — and cringe for his naivete — as he tries to contend with the kind of underworld types he needs in order to manage a bust out of prison.

Crowe is mild-mannered Pittsburgh college literature professor John Brennan, and his wife, Lara (Elizabeth Banks), has been sent away for 20 years for the murder of her boss, a crime she did not commit. (Or did she?) All appeals have been exhausted. There's nothing left for John to do but arrange for her escape. It's an insane idea, but one borne from love and despair, and he goes about planning it with the kind of meticulous care that comes from knowing he's got one chance to pull this off ... and that if he fails, his young son (Ty Simpkins) will lose his other parent forever as well.

Days actively subverts the clichés of the prison-break story in the one-scene cameo made by a brutal Liam Neeson. He's a guy who's busted out of prison multiple times, and he basically tells John there's no way he can do this. No spoilers, but the final half hour, which encompasses the actual escape, is almost unbearably suspenseful, and one of the most intense sequences I've seen at the movies this year.

Again, there's some credit due to Haggis, of course, but mostly, it's Crowe's concentrated passion driving some startling events and making us forget how absurd they are. This is Crowe's film, and it is a triumph for him, and for us, in how he lifts the whole endeavor far above genre cheese into the stuff of great and forceful drama.

scene@csindy.com

The Next Three Days | Russell Crowe | Paul Haggis | Liam Neeson | Elizabeth Banks

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The Next Three Days

Official Site: thenextthreedaysmovie.com

Director: Paul Haggis

Writer: Paul Haggis and Fred CavayƩ

Cast: Liam Neeson, Russell Crowe, Elizabeth Banks, Olivia Wilde, Jonathan Tucker, Brian Dennehy, RZA, Lennie James, Jason Beghe and Moran Atias

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