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Crowe adds compelling edge to somewhat slow ‘Next Three Days’

Devoted spouses always swear they’ll do anything, anything, for their beloved partners.

Ah, but how many of them put their lives on the line to prove it?

Count "The Next Three Days" as a case in point.

A remake of the 2008 French thriller "Pour Elle (Anything for Her)" — which, not surprisingly, never made it to Las Vegas theaters — "The Next Three Days" serves up an intermittently gripping tale of love, loyalty and desperate measures.

Yet there’s a nagging undercurrent of something lost in translation.

Maybe that’s because the translator is writer-director Paul Haggis, who won Oscars for writing back-to-back best picture winners "Million Dollar Baby" (directed by Clint Eastwood) and "Crash" (directed by Haggis himself).

As we can tell from "Crash" and Haggis’ other big-screen directorial credit, 2007’s Iraq-themed "In the Valley of Elah," Haggis specializes in exploring where the personal and political intersect, usually with a sledgehammer to drive home the moral of the story.

By contrast, "The Next Three Days" keeps the focus squarely on the personal. And while that character-driven status pays off most of the time, Haggis can’t always maintain the movie’s suspense while trying to explain his protagonists’ motivations beyond an obvious catalyst: an apparent miscarriage of justice.

It’s one that hits particularly close to home for John Brennan (Russell Crowe), a community college literature professor, his wife Lara (Elizabeth Banks) and their 6-year-old son Luke (Ty Simpkins).

Almost as soon as the movie establishes their happy home life, it’s obliterated — because Lara’s arrested, charged and convicted of her boss’ parking-lot murder while coming home from work.

John, naturally, refuses to believe she’s guilty — although, if she’s innocent, how to explain the presence of the victim’s blood on her coat?

Three years later, with legal appeals exhausted, Lara’s about to be transferred from the county jail to the state penitentiary — and John’s increasingly anxious to free her.

Conveniently, the book he’s teaching his students is none other than Cervantes’ "Don Quixote." And the title character’s belief in "the triumph of irrationality" inspires John to tilt at his own personal windmill — by plotting to bust Lara out of jail.

He doesn’t have much time to plan. Yet with the help of a wily ex-convict (a grizzled Liam Neeson), author of a how-to book on the art of the prison escape, John learns that freeing Lara is do-able, if hardly free.

Lara doesn’t know about John’s plan, of course. She can’t know — until it’s time for him to put the plan in motion.

Assuming he can pull the whole thing off, that is. And — big surprise — "The Next Three Days" makes sure he gets the chance.

That accounts in large measure for the movie’s split personality.

For (too) much of its running time, it’s a heist thriller, following John’s prison-break preparations. The process brings him into contact with the local underworld — his source for phony passports, all-too-real firearms and the harrowing knowledge that he’ll probably have to use them — to his laconic father (a flinty Brian Dennehy), who seems to understand John’s anguish without either father or son saying much of anything. As we can tell, that’s the way it’s always been between them.

Eventually, however, it’s make-or-break time for "The Next Three Days," triggering an escape sequence that picks up the pace — for a bit — and showcases the movie’s Pittsburgh setting as our runaway protagonists dodge downtown pedestrians, lead pursuing cops on a subway-platform chase and even make a last-ditch stop at the zoo.

It’s to Haggis’ credit that the action remains clear and coherent throughout this sequence; no slice-and-dice editing for him. But the director can’t seem to resist an impulse to follow the gritty cops on the case (Jason Beghe, Aisha Hinds, Lennie James), undercutting some of the movie’s essential momentum.

As a result, "The Next Three Days" squanders crucial screen time that might have been better spent fleshing out John’s heartache — and Lara’s experiences, and emotional state, behind bars. (We also could use more of Neeson and Dennehy, whose powerhouse presences seem arbitrarily, almost cruelly, curtailed.)

Despite its sometimes draggy pacing, however, the dependable — and dependably chameleonic — Crowe keeps "The Next Three Days" moving, in both senses of the term.

While Banks’ moody edginess isn’t entirely convincing (although it’s always understandable), Crowe manages to make John’s Everyman determination, and his walk-on-the-wild-side desperation, not only credible but compelling.

That’s a bit more than we can say for the movie he anchors. As "The Next Three Days" demonstrates, seeing’s not always believing.

Contact movie critic Carol Cling at ccling@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272.

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