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Cinema Signal: Not quite a green light because of script weaknesses but has elements of strong appeal for a limited audience.
. "The Next Three Days"

Adapting the highly successful French thriller, "Anything For Her" for an American audience, Paul Haggis writes and directs and delivers one of the more gut-grabbing suspense yarns we've seen this year. And, there's no denying that he stacked the deck in his favor by casting Russell Crowe ("Robin Hood"), whose masculine presence goes a long way to turn a certain amount of implausibility negligible as he sucks us into a yarn about a wife's false imprisonment.

Fate is on the menu during a restaurant dinner that wasn't supposed to be anything more than social. It's a double date, with Lara (Elizabeth Banks, "W.") and John (Crowe) Brennan and Lara's female boss and her husband. But the underlying tension between the women are about to render the cuisine on the table spoiled. With a rather over-the-top explosion of suppressed hatred and ill-will between the women, the evening goes so haywire that you correctly assume it was contrived (poorly) as a storytelling element. Which is where fate enters the scenario.

It takes hold on another night when Lara, on her way to her car in a public garage, bumps into a woman in a state of agitation. When Lara gets to her car there's a heavy canister of fire retardant alongside the driver's door, which she lifts and puts aside. The departure of her car reveals the body of a woman lying near a car in the next space. The body is that of Lara's boss, and she's dead.

When Lara arrives home, she removes her coat and discovers a fresh blood stain on it. Baffled, she attempts to remove the mark by putting it under a faucet. Before she gets a chance to sit down for dinner, police storm into the house with a warrant and cart her off to jail, leaving a shocked, disbelieving husband trying to calm his very upset young son Luke (Ty Simpkins).

John, a teacher, fully expects Lara's full exoneration at trial. Even so, little Luke's reaction is to express his confusion at mom's disappearance from home by coolness toward her--something that all but kills her. Mom's circumstances are beyond the boy's comprehension. Lara's conviction for murder hits the Brennans like a ton of prison bricks.

This begins a long legal process ending in final disappointment. If John's level of desperation wssn't already leading his thoughts and plans toward righting this wrong by any means possible, Lara's attempt at suicide and visible degradation confirms the need to take action. Urgently wanting to avoid failure, his research leads him to a barroom consultation with hardened ex-con Damon Pennington (Liam Neeson in a terrific cameo role) who has written a book on prison breaks from personal experience and know-how. For a fee, he passes on analytic details of police reaction times in a major city to a breakout and the long odds, even with three years of preparation, of pulling one off.

Despite the time that has elapsed with no further hope of achieving legal justice, John makes clear to Lara during one of his jail visits that neither she nor anyone else could ever convince him that she is guilty of this crime--despite her own declaration to the contrary. His utter faith in her allows him to read her cryptic confession to him as an attempt to free him. But there's something she doesn't know about her husband. Until the day of the breakout arrives, she has no idea of what he's been planning.

Once it happens the pursuit is on, with smart cops figuring out the Brennan's moves, their trickery and locations. Detective acumen tests credibility but make for a ligh level of unrelenting tension and clockwork precision that is pure entertainment. We suspense junkies will appreciate the scope and choreography of the mid-city chase through buildings, subway trains and on roadways with all the ironies of excruciatingly close timing and impossible choices.

With Crowe in this role, there is an earnestness and belief that the hero of the piece will, indeed, tackle the improbable. His conviction in performing the task and the righteousness of the reason for doing it comes from this actor's full power to convey strength and capability. The portrayal here goes down as being among his best, no doubt aided by his superb costar.

Bank's part has a subtlety calling for more than good reading of dialogue. In an extraordinary moment of non-verbal acting, she performs a transition from steaming despair and futility to the tearful realization that, despite everything, John is as certain about her innocence as he is about the planet rotating on its axis. She is not suffering alone and the meaning of it for this woman brings a flush to her wan complexion. It's an award moment for this beautiful actress who goes through most of the movie virtually without makeup or artifice.

Brian Dennehy turns in a performance that's rare in its wordlessness. Reactive rather that proactive, his character's understanding of his son's position and courage is as artful as it is silent.

Composer Danny Elfman is supportive with a pulsating score that adds aural fabric to the tempo of the action. Production credits are all pro with cinematographer Stephane Fontaine doing full justice to the needs and character of the film.

You can condemn this movie for the liberties it takes with such things as the laws of nature and the flawless efficiency of the cops, not to say the level of daring and the size of the challenge in a well guarded city like Pittsburgh. Haggis is terribly obvious in the way he sets up the dinner scene to establish enmity between the falsely accused woman and her supposed victim as the key to her conviction. Lara's false suggestion to John that she might really be the murderer she's accused of being is an interesting curve but comes off as contrived to satisfy literary needs.

But a lot of such nonsense can be put aside if the excitement of the thrills is great enough to overcome the carps and if the essential players earn your unrelieved concern for them and with the outcome of their travails.

It was that way for this observer as I became glued to my seat, enjoying the third act's payoff in a swiftly paced pursuit full of hairpin turns of fate, and an intricate use of the city infrastructure. I believe the condemnation this film has received in the critical community stems from the expectations from this talented a cast and screenwriter at the helm. For whatever reason, I submitted to a simpler set of reactions. There are times you just go along with something even it it's more fairy tale than reality and longer than it should have been.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Elizabeth Banks and Russell Crowe
The Brennans... under the heel of false imprisonment.

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