The main dynamic you have to accept in "The Next Three Days" — the one that the entire story, all the drama, all the risk hinge upon — is that Russell Crowe and Elizabeth Banks actually belong together.
Always strong individually, they make no sense as a couple. Chalk it up to miscasting, a lack of chemistry, whatever: It's simply too hard to buy them as husband and wife. And that's a problem, since it undermines our ability to become emotionally immersed in the life-threatening danger in which they find themselves.
As a result, Paul Haggis' thriller, based on the 2008 French film "Anything for Her," ends up feeling even more implausible than it might have. A couple of thrilling chase sequences in the film's third act and intense moments within Crowe and Banks' performances, as well as one great scene involving Liam Neeson, unfortunately can't salvage the whole endeavor.
The latest movie from the Oscar-winning "Crash" director finds Banks' Lara Brennan being charged and convicted of killing her boss in a Pittsburgh parking garage. Lara insists she didn't commit the crime despite having a smudge of the victim's blood on her trench coat, and Haggis' script provides obscured flashback glimpses of that night's events, keeping her guilt or innocence a mystery until the end.
Once all of Lara's appeals have run out and she's on the verge of being transferred to a state penitentiary, her husband, John, hatches a scheme to break her out of the joint. John, mind you, is a mild-mannered community college English professor who already has his hands full caring for the couple's 6-year-old son, Luke (Ty Simpkins), alone.
Somehow he finds the time to research how to make bump keys and construct intricate surveillance of the various delivery vans that come and go from the jail. He covers a bedroom wall with maps, photos, notes to himself — and really obvious, giant, felt-pen dollar signs and question marks — all of which he manages to keep hidden from the rest of his family. At night, he trolls the city's seedy side, buying drugs as an entry to inquire about fake passports. He walks around with a gun and wads of cash. He gets his butt severely kicked.
One would think John might be dissuaded — or sleep-deprived, given all the juggling he's doing and the dual lives he's living. But despite Crowe's indisputable ability to transform himself and dig deep for every character he plays, we never get a sense of whether crafting this plot weighs on John's conscience. He's understandably bereft and driven, given the possibility that his wife and the mother of his child will be locked up for the next 20 years, but this is ridiculous. Banks, meanwhile, is believably hardened by her time behind bars; she develops a sadness and an edge to her usually bright personality.
But the most intriguing figure of all is Neeson as a grizzled ex-con who has literally written the book on prison breaks. The scene in which John tries to seek out his advice, without giving away his intention to spring Lara, briefly brings "The Next Three Days" to life. You'd watch a whole movie about that guy. And you'd buy it completely.