Friday, November 19, 2010

The Next Three Days: Paul Haggis’s Botched Remake

Over the years, movie remakes have gained something of a disreputable reputation among filmgoers. But while there are no shortage of remade turkeys (Breathless, Vanilla Sky), many other remakes have been quite good, even great. The makers of The Birdcage (1996) did a nice job of translating La cage aux folles (1978), that funny French farce about a gay couple (one of whom dresses in drag) pretending to be straight to American shores. It deftly substituted political divisions for the class ones in the Gallic movie. Likewise, the folks behind Unfaithful (2002) perfectly captured the darkness and passion lurking behind placid bourgeois exteriors that allowed Claude Chabrol’s French original, La Femme infidèle (1968), to stand out from the pack. Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys (1995), notwithstanding Brad Pitt’s grating, excessive performance, was a terrific extension of Chris Marker’s brilliant apocalyptic, time-travel SF short, La jetée (1962). And, of course, John Huston’s adaptation of Dashiell Hammet’s The Maltese Falcon (1941) improved on the 1931 movie of the same name (and another made in 1936 called Satan Meets A Lady), so much so that very few people are aware that Huston’s was actually a remake, let alone the third version.

Diane Kruger & Vincent Lindon
By those lights, The Next Three Days, an American adaptation of Fred Cavayé’s fine 2008 debut French thriller Pour elle (For Her) ought to have been a slam dunk since its premise was so striking and plot friendly. The French movie revolved around an ordinary Parisian teacher, Julien Aucler (Vincent Lindon), whose wife Diane (Diane Kruger) has been imprisoned for murder. She’s innocent, but damning circumstantial evidence means she’s going to be locked up for many years to come. Determined to do right by his wife, and their young son Oscar (Lancelot Roch), and utterly convinced of her innocence, he sets out to see if he can find a way to bust her out of prison and escape the country with his family. Great idea, terrific execution; a foolproof template for a remake, you’d think. That is if Hollywood hadn’t made two mistakes in the process: 1) They handed over the reins of the project to Paul Haggis, hack director (Crash) and screenwriter (Million Dollar Baby, Casino Royale); and 2) they decided to deviate from the tight and economical 96 minute French movie and delivered a bloated, excessive 135 minute American version in its place. Big surprise: the remake sucks.

For the American version, The Next Three Days has been relocated to Pittsburgh and its hero, John Brennan, now played by Russell Crowe, turned into a community college professor, instead of the high school teacher in the original. But for its first half, at least, the U.S. movie generally stays faithful to Pour elle, minus a few tweaks to the story here and there. Some of those, such as having John having a much easier time getting his hands on a gun makes sense, as that action would be much easier to pull off in Pittsburgh than in gun-strict Paris. Some of the others, such as changing the grade level at which John teaches, are less explicable. Without revealing too many details of the plot, most of the small changes display just a hint of moralizing and a touch of dumbing down, by spelling out that which should be apparent to anyone with half a brain. There’s nothing like assuming your potential audience are morons. Fred Cavayé actually worked on The Next Three Days’s screenplay with Paul Haggis, so I’ll credit him with the smart parts of the film, which echo its French predecessor, and blame Haggis for the unnecessary, extraneous segments that have nothing to do with Pour elle.

It’s in the film’s second half that everything falls apart. Just when the plot should shift into high, fast and efficient gear, as it did in Pour elle, when Julien sets a daring plan into motion (I won’t say more than that), The Next Three Days, instead, puts a brake on the proceedings. It does so by unnecessarily stretching out the story, adding all manner of contrivances, chase scenes and extra characters, which not only bogs down the film’s momentum but succeeds in giving it a patina of exaggeration and turns John into MacGyver instead of allowing him to be the everyman he is supposed to be. (Pour elle only had one scene where Julien seemed unrealistically super heroic; The Next Three Days is full of scenes like that.) The American film also ends on an ironic and illogical note that simply didn't need to be inserted into the story.

Lennie James
It doesn’t help that Crowe appears, as he did in this summer’s Robin Hood, half asleep throughout the movie; he’s turning into Harrison Ford in his middle age, seemingly not giving a damn about acting anymore. He’s right for the role of John, but misses out on conveying the quiet anguish and pain that Lindon so memorably brought to the part of Julien. You care less what happens to him as the film proceeds, which to say the least, is highly damaging to the whole. As in Robin Hood, too, where the best performances came from the supporting cast, The Next Three Days only comes to life intermittently with standout acting of secondary performers. Liam Neeson juices things up in his only scene as an ex-con, and author of a book on his many prison escapes, who advises John early on in the movie. (He’s good enough in that brief sequence that you can’t help but wish he was starring in the movie in Crowe’s place.) Even more impressive is British actor Lennie James, utterly convincing as an American cop, a police lieutenant, who – though saddled with an underwritten role – manages to rivet the screen anyway, through a few well placed words and his eloquent expressions. I haven’t seen his work yet in the new AMC zombie drama The Walking Dead, but on the basis of this part and his lead role in the recent CBS science fiction series Jericho where he played an enigmatic FBI agent, I’d like to see him get starring roles in the movies. He’s easily the charismatic equal of Denzel Washington or Johnny Depp.

Elizabeth Banks & Russell Crowe
The rest of the cast, including Elizabeth Banks as John’s wife Lara, and Ty Simpkins, as his son Luke don’t resonate much, though the usually bland Banks (Scrubs, W.) atypically does display a bit of an edge in a few declarative scenes. For his part, Simpkins is adequate but forgettable.

Had Paul Haggis been capable of directing the movie with at least some verve and panache, I think it could have surmounted its weak performances, but The Next Three Days is for the most part a lumbering, somnolent beast of a film. Haggis even botches a key and very tense action scene from Pour elle that is alluded to at the outset of both movies. His film is further hobbled by its generic cinematography, courtesy of Frenchman Stéphane Fontaine – who was so much better photographing Jacques Audiard’s French movies A Prophet and The Beat That My Heart Skipped – and Danny Elfman’s uncharacteristically heavy-handed score. The Moby tracks in the film, “Mistake” and “Be The One” are pretty lousy, too.

The Next Three Days highlights the artistic conundrum at the heart of most Hollywood remakes of foreign-language films. The studios are savvy enough to recognize unique movies when they see them, but once they get their grubby hands on them they either don’t trust the material enough to stay entirely faithful to the plots and storylines, that made the films so clever to begin with, or fail to choose the right filmmakers to adapt the movies to their market. Or both. The end results are neutered, hackneyed movies like The Next Three Days. You’d be much better off, and far more entertained, by renting the French original.

– Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He is teaching a course on significant contemporary film directors this fall at Ryerson University's LIFE Institute.


  1. Wow, I couldn't disagree with you more about the score/ soundtrack. I also really thought it was an entertaining moving with great acting and good directing. I didn't see the French original, so I wonder if you would have liked this movie if it hadn't been made before. Your thoughts?

  2. I have seen both versions, French and American and the American is much better. In a an escape movie, I would rather not have the escape plan mostly glossed over in a quick montage that makes it look like something anyone could do with ease. Steal and falsify lab results? No problem. Gain access to restricted areas? Easy. Etc... The American version didn't dumb things down, they took the time to actually explain how the husband got from point A to point B and how he was exactly able to execute what he did to free his wife. I much prefer a movie that gives details than one that lazily ignores them and just expects the audience to go along with the outcome. I followed the French film Pour Elle just fine but The Next Three Days was a better written and better directed movie that better represented the struggle and process the husband went through to concoct the escape route for his wife.

  3. I totally disagree. This movie had all the elements of action suspense an.d careful planning.