A peculiar fate awaits foreign-language films that are too commercially astute to be ghettoised as "art house": they are remade in English, usually in inferior versions that accumulate more money than the originals. This will surely be the case when Working Title remakes last summer's Heartbreaker, a dotty French romcom that paid homage to the Richard Curtis comedies produced by, yes, Working Title. I think this is what Elton John was referring to when he sang about the circle of life.
The Next Three Days continues the pattern. It is adapted by the writer-director Paul Haggis from a French potboiler that was released here in 2009 as Anything for Her. That picture concerns a teacher who is driven to violent extremes when his wife is imprisoned for murder: he decides to spring her from the slammer. While the audience knows for sure whether or not the woman is innocent, her husband is left in the dark. This turns the picture into something unusual: a thriller on the theme of uxoriousness.
At just over two hours, the new version is 30 minutes longer and approximately 30 per cent less interesting. It presents its lead actor, Russell Crowe, with a kind of dual role. As the literature teacher-turned-jailbreaker John Brennan, he gets to be a gruff action man, which conforms to his persona in most of those dutiful, post-Gladiator parts of the past decade. But before the fisticuffs start, Crowe can also parade his sensitive side by mooching around in the wake of his wife's arrest and by raising their young son single-handedly. In short, he can be both Dustin Hoffman in Kramer v Kramer and Bruce Willis in Die Hard.
Crowe's aura even in peacetime can be summarised as: "I'm an honourable sort and if you say any different, I'll break your fucking collarbone." He is not unconvincing in the tender scenes but the impression is unmistakably that of someone who is rushing their greens to get to the dessert more quickly.
Was Haggis worried that the Mr Nice Guy routine wouldn't sit well with Crowe's fans? Even before John picks up his first gun, he has the following exchange with his child, who has been teased by a classmate: "Did you hit him?" "Yeah." "Good."
If that won't win him a trophy for dad of the year, it does add some plausibility to the character's gradual transformation into an avenging angel. John still manages to hold down his job while plotting to rescue his wife, Lara (Elizabeth Banks), but then the set text is Don Quixote. With its questions of virtue and insanity, this has special pertinence to his troubles. It's not like he has to teach Persuasion.
Hokum of this order doesn't need outright gags to make its humour felt and the picture has some fun with the contrast between the manic and the mundane - John snipping telephone cables while his son watches from the back seat of the car, or fitting in the rescue plan around the boy's invitation to a birthday party. When Lara and John are driving and Lara shrieks, "Red light! Red light!" they could be any bickering couple, except that there are helicopters and police cars swarming around them. When John leans across his wife to secure the lock on the passenger door, he might be any caring husband, except that Lara has recently tried to hurl herself from the moving vehicle.
John's faith in Lara's innocence - or maybe it's his belief in the sanctity of marriage - is mirrored in the trust that Haggis shows for his low-rent material. He's considered something of a class act in Hollywood, having scripted two liberal love-ins, Million Dollar Baby and Crash, as well as directing the latter. But he is more persuasive when he's not shooting for prestige. As well as skimming merrily over various jarring details (would the police really go to so much trouble to investigate a fire in the meth lab of a known drug dealer?), Haggis makes sure to throw the audience a nice, chewy bone every so often. Among the delights is an excellent, wordless scene where John visits Lara in prison to tell her that her appeal has been turned down, and the honest fun of seeing Liam Neeson as a beret-wearing ex-con with an accent of uncertain origin.