At one point during 'The Next Three Days,' our protagonist John Brennan (Russell Crowe) is getting advice from an ex-con about how to break someone out of jail. John's wife Lara (Elizabeth Banks) is locked up for a murder she may or may not have committed, and it looks like she won't be going anywhere for the next 20 years or so. Her suicide attempt was the last straw for John -- now he's determined to spring her himself, no matter the cost.
Ex-con Damon Pennington, who is played by Liam Neeson with a bizarre facial scar and a Brooklyn accent, has broken out of jail numerous times and even written a book about it. As the viewer struggles to ignore how unlikely that would be, Damon breaks it down for John on how one might break out of the Allegheny County Jail and make it out of Pittsburgh before the cops close in. He asks John if he's ready to make decisions that could turn him into a different person -- would he kill? Would he give up his family? How far would he, could he go? For that matter, could he do this even against his wife's wishes?
What is supposed to be one of the questions at the heart of 'The Next Three Days' is easily answered. Of course he will! John, the community college professor, goes straight to work mapping out Pittsburgh, learning how to pick locks, following the truck that brings medical supplies (including Lara's insulin) from the prison to the hospital and back, buying fake passports and selling off household items one by one. What is set up to be one of the greatest sources of tension in the movie, John's moral quandary, just isn't.
There is plenty of other drama to keep us on our toes, including a hot single mom played by Olivia Wilde whose daughter likes John's son. His son is teased at school and won't talk to his mom when they go to visit, her lawyer has given up on her case, John keeps getting his ass kicked by various underworld creeps as he attempts to get things in order for the jailbreak and so forth. There are great cameos by Kevin Corrigan as a meth dealer and James Ransone, aka Ziggy from 'The Wire,' as a random thug. Brian Dennehy appears as John's father; he mostly glowers at his son but comes through for him in a pinch. The real question is why John never, ever questions Lara's innocence. He doesn't waver. He doesn't even glance at the hot single mom. His loyalty is practically in defiance of Lara herself, who seems to wish he'd just get on with his life and quit mooning around.
There is one moment near the end that is so egregiously over the top it calls to mind writer/director Paul Haggis's 'Crash,' probably one of the most hated Oscar recipients ever, but thankfully, most of the movie is a few notches below 'Crash' on the melodrama scale. Although there is plenty that is ineffective in 'The Next Three Days,' Haggis does manage to pull off two rather admirable feats. One, it's never clear whether or not Lara actually did commit the murder she's convicted of. Two, John's escape plan seems impossible, and I really was guessing at every turn what would happen next.
Banks and Crowe basically keep the movie aloft; without either of their performances, 'The Next Three Days,' which is an adaptation of the French movie 'Pour Elle,' would have imploded. Banks smoothly transforms herself into a hot-headed businesswoman who could be capable of murder, and Crowe is as good as the writing allows his fairly one-dimensional character to be. Once John sets his plan in motion, things speed up nicely, but it's not really enough to redeem the previous two-thirds of the movie.