In a film set in Pittsburgh, whose name I do not wish to recall*
(*With apologies to Cervantes)
Is it too much to hope that, when a studio has the wherewithal – and budget – to pull together such cinematic luminaries as Russell Crowe, Brian Dennehy and Liam Neeson, that it won’t insult its audience’s intelligence with the result? Once upon a time, Hollywood threw its big name stars challenging roles, and they produced erudite, artful, memorable and, well, *thrilling* thrillers, like Silence of the Lambs and LA Confidential or Memento. No longer, apparently. Nowadays the best you’ll get is lightweight fluff like Knight and Day, and formulaic rubbish like Three Days Left – or whatever this film was called: I am honestly already having trouble remembering. My wife and I sat in a bar afterwards and tried to look on the bright side just to think of something nice to say. At least it wasn’t in 3D.
This film assembles a (mostly) talented, but (altogether) wasted, big name cast, including one of my favourite, underrated, actors of all time: Brian Dennehy. But Dennehy was so starved of script I wondered at one point whether the actor (now in his seventies) had suffered a stroke and was unable to speak. Joy of joys, eventually he did, briefly, and managed in a couple of stares to generate more acting quality than the rest of the cast put together. Liam Neeson played some sort of escape artist ex-con with a comedy Bronx accent, a Hemingway cap and a preposterous scar across his cheek: he may as well have had a parrot on his shoulder and a wooden leg for the sense his character made (although then he would be less able to ride the motorcycle which the scriptwriters had bestowed on him). Russell Crowe – an actor who has fashioned a career from being a moody, sexy, hard bastard – plays John Brennan, an overweight, credulous and downright wet schoolteacher whose wife is subject to a horrendous miscarriage of justice.
Except – and it pains me to admit I’m legally qualified, but I am – I don’t think it *was* a miscarriage of justice. More importantly, Brennan is given no cause throughout the film, save guileless and gullible belief in the blamelessness of his wife, to think so either. And nor does director Andrew Haggis invest any time in ensuring we are sympathetic to Laura Brennan’s cause. Haggis’ pedigree is James Bond screenwriting, so I don’t suppose he has ever needed to bother establishing his hero, but here the film was lost within the first ten minutes when, in the course of a single petulant exchange, we are introduced to, and invited to immediately dislike, Laura Brennan, a fractious, humourless woman in a blonde wig who is easily baited by her sister-in-law. The fact that Laura lovingly shags her husband in the car afterwards and insists on taking a photo of their nuclear family every day doesn’t substitute for decent emotional investment. We actively dislike Laura, and little of her behaviour afterwards does anything to change this. Even her son patently dislikes her.
From this unpromising tableau we are led onto John Brennan’s thoroughly implausible journey from wet English teacher lecturing on Don Quixote (which would have been funny and clever if Brennan hadn’t misrepresented a farce as tragedy) to criminal mastermind, springing his irritating wife from maximum security clink towards a South American lam. This involves preparation: as convention dictates, Brennan duly erects a wall map of his plan: a map of Pittsburgh, photos of security vans, lines joining up all the dots (you know the drill), including, unfathomably, scrawling a budget for the heist on the map, and useful reminders “GET A FALSE MOUSTACHE” etc. “AND HAT”. Brennan assembles a cast of low life characters (including Neeson and a lip-reading deaf chap, also on a motorbike) to help him execute his plan. Oh, and YouTube, of course, which will tell you how to pick prison locks and open security vans armed only with an old tennis ball.
All this to save a highly strung and glacial wife who can’t even maintain the affection of her mop-headed son, and who shows no gratitude for her husband’s loyalty, no matter how misplaced or, er, quixotic. During his preparation John Brennan encounters a lonesome single mum who inveigles him with come-hither looks, but showing the resolve of a rather deluded saint, merely uses her to effect his plan.
You won’t be surprised to hear that cuddly schoolteacher makes a better fist of his ludicrous plan than logic would dictate he ought. The last part of the film descends into a frenetic chase across beautiful Pittsburgh (talk about quixotic: Haggis attempts some scene setting shots intended to make Pittsburgh look picturesque), and as convention dictates, the police are by turns brilliant to the point of clairvoyance when tracking and nearly catching him, but moronic beyond belief in the last five yards when apprehension is finally at hand. Not that I wasn’t rooting for the hapless cops: wouldn’t it be a lovely turn of events if, just once, the perpetually doomed coppers actually got their man?
I seem to say this a lot of films, and it depresses me to have to: check your brain at the door, and the two hours will pass quickly enough. But killing time is hardly enough reason to part with a tenner and sit in a dark room.
For once, wouldn’t it be nice to take your brain in with you to the cinema?
The Next Three Days is out in UK cinemas 7th January 2011.
Director: Paul Haggis
Cast: Russell Crowe, Liam Neeson, Brian Dennehy, Olivia Wilde, Elizabeth Banks