A meticulous reworking of the 2008 French film Pour elle, Paul Haggis´ The Next Three Days scores no points for originality (it´s almost a scene-for-scene redux of the earlier film, which held few surprises itself) but it is a taut, reasonably compelling and adult thriller – a combination that´s become increasingly rare at today´s multiplexes.
Russell Crowe plays community college professor John Brennan, whose wife Lara (Elizabeth Banks) has been convicted for the murder of her boss. Years later, running out of appeals, his lawyer (Daniel Stern) asks him to look at the facts: Lara´s fingerprints are on the murder weapon, her boss´s blood is on her jacket, and an eyewitness sees her leaving the crime scene. She might be guilty.
But John is convinced of her innocence, though he may never know for sure (and, for the majority of the running time, neither do we; a great film might have left that question unanswered.) He vows to get Lara out of prison and reunite her with their young son (Ty Simpkins); with the legal system failing them, he turns to other options.
The buildup is slow and careful, as we follow John each and every step of the way (including watching YouTube videos on making a bump key and unlocking a car door with a tennis ball), but it pays off by the end; a complex, lengthy climatic breakout is truly exciting and plays out like a well-planned heist sequence, with the audience in on the plan. It works despite some contrived one-step-ahead moments, which are unnecessary anyway; the situation itself is tense enough.
An excellent supporting cast features Liam Neeson as the ex-con and 7-time escapee who John turns to for advice; RZA, Kevin Corrigan, and Tyrone Giordano are some of the criminals who provide ‘assistance´; Jason Beghe, Aisha Hinds, and Lennie James are some of the cops on his trail. Unlike most thrillers, which might want to keep a smaller cast in the loop for the duration of the film, the characters here tend to show up, lend their services to the plot, and disappear; this adds a level of realism to the proceedings. Also noteworthy: Brian Dennehy and Helen Carey as John´s parents, and Olivia Wilde as a sympathetic single mother.
The Next Three Days has drawn some heavy criticism for credibility issues, but I found the first half of the film refreshingly realistic. Perhaps too realistic; the later thriller elements do tend to feel out of place by comparison. John´s motivations – when even his wife has resigned herself to spending the next twenty years in prison – are hard to really get a grasp on (why risk it all and further endanger your son´s future?) Crowe also feels miscast – I´d have preferred to see someone like Neeson in this role.
Haggis displays as strong a directorial touch here as in his acclaimed previous films (Crash, In the Valley of Elah), but his influence as a writer is almost nonexistent; viewers of the original film, only 2 years old, will find little new here. These remakes only showcase a lack of creativity in Hollywood; an original work with the same talent behind it would have a much better chance of success (see also: Let Me In, an excellent remake of the Swedish film Let the Right One In; it, too, failed to catch on with US audiences.)
Jack Black wears a big ol´ goofy grin throughout the duration of Gulliver´s Travels, a grin indicative of the film as a whole. Lightweight, dumb, and short enough to remain tolerable, this version of the classic Jonathan Swift story bears little resemblance to the original, nor does it have many merits of its own, but it does have a certain charm. Plus, it´s hard to hate something that never really takes itself seriously.
Black plays mailroom employee Lemuel Gulliver (he´s only referred to as ‘Gulliver´ onscreen), who cuts & pastes from Wikipedia, Time Out, and Frommer´s in order to impress lovely travel editor Darcy (Amanda Peet) and land a gig as a travel writer (straight plagiarism, really?) Of course, swiping text off Wikipedia is sure to land you a job at a major New York publication, and so Gulliver is off to his first destination, the Bermuda Triangle.
You won´t be surprised to learn that Gulliver somehow winds up in Swift´s Lilliput (the exact circumstances of which are less than fully convincing), the island nation made of tiny humans about one-twelfth the size of a normal man. The tiny people are technologically advanced, however, and they´re able to chain up ‘The Beast´ and throw him in a cave with fellow prisoner Horatio (Jason Segel).
But Gulliver can be useful, the Lilliputians discover, during a sequence involving the resourceful way a large man can put out a tiny fire. And then during a battle with warring nation Blefuscia, during which Gulliver absorbs tiny cannonballs into his stomach and then pumps them out, destroying enemy battleships (you might question the behavior of these tiny cannonballs, which stick into Gulliver´s flesh instead of piercing it like bullets.)
The Lilliputians are rounded out by a delightful supporting cast, which includes Billy Connolly as the King, Catharine Tate as his Queen, Emily Blunt as their daughter, and Chris O´Dowd as the General as makeshift villain. Throughout the film, they´re all wearing the same shit-eating grin as Black, who sets the tone with his complete lack of conviction. You can feel the screenplay try to inject drama into the proceedings, but the actors steadfastly refuse: they´re just here to have fun. It works out better for us that way, too.
Director Rob Letterman previously worked in animation (Shark Tale, Monsters vs. Aliens), which more than obvious here, each actor playing loud and broad; he also injects a cartoonish warmth into the film that seems to defy criticism. Screenplay is by Joe Stillman (Beavis & Butthead) and Nicholas Stoller (Forgetting Sarah Marshall); while the majority of the film rarely rises above ‘amusing´, there are a few lines here and there that get laughs.
There´s a good (great?) movie waiting to be made from Swift´s original story; it wasn´t quite the 1939 Max Fleischer cartoon, or the live-action 1960 film, or the TV movie with Ted Danson. It sure ain´t this one, either. But taken for what it is, this Gulliver´s Travels is light and breezy and short enough (80 minutes) to prove painless for most parents, while kids should enjoy it as something akin to the Night at the Museum films (and without the heavy-handed melodrama, it´s better than either of those.)
Before the film, be sure to catch Scrat’s Continental Crack-up, another Ice Age short featuring the lovable saber-toothed squirrel and his pesky acorn.
Note: Gulliver´s Travels is screening mostly in a Czech-dubbed version in Prague, but you can catch it in English at Palace Cinemas Slovanský dům (in 2D) and CineStar Anděl (in 3D). The above review refers to the 2D version of the film.