Like his professorial protagonist in "The Next Three Days," Paul Haggis does his homework.
It was after settling on Pittsburgh as the backdrop for his film that he started writing and was able to incorporate such keystones as the Allegheny County Jail, Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium (with those photogenic polar bears), subway system, working- and middle-class neighborhoods, playgrounds, bridges and much more.
3 1/2 stars = Very good
- Starring: Russell Crowe, Elizabeth Banks.
- Rating: PG-13 for violence, drug material, language, some sexuality and thematic elements.
You don't become the first person to write back-to-back Best Picture Oscar winners in "Million Dollar Baby" and "Crash" without being smart, and Mr. Haggis is -- and so is his screenplay, which turns on small, surprising but salient details.
The movie, based on the French film "Pour Elle," stars Russell Crowe as John Brennan, a community college instructor whose wife, Lara (Elizabeth Banks) is arrested for murder and convicted. Despite circumstantial evidence, she insists she did not kill her boss, a woman she had called a "useless cow."
Three years in jail and the rejection of appeals take their toll on John, Lara and their young son (Ty Simpkins). When Lara becomes despondent, John takes a page from the "Don Quixote" text he teaches and embarks on a quixotic quest to try and break his wife out of jail.
This knight-errant appears to be a Pirates fan, like the director, so he's accustomed to long odds.
Mr. Crowe may play the mastermind, but this Everyman is closer to his Washington, D.C., reporter in "State of Play" or whistle-blower in "The Insider" than to Robin Hood or General Maximus in "Gladiator." He is a professor who turns to the Internet to figure out how to pop a car lock or locate a jailbreak expert.
At 133 minutes, "The Next Three Days" feels about five or 10 minutes too long, and it teases the audience with the question of Lara's culpability until it tips the scale in one direction. A more ambiguous ending might have added a sophisticated layer of mystery to the story, but this seems designed to give the audience a definitive answer.
Mr. Haggis has said he wanted to explore this question: "Would you save the woman you love if you knew that by doing so, you would turn into someone she might no longer be able to love?" Add these corollaries: What are you willing to sacrifice and if there is no perfect crime, can there be a perfect jailbreak?
As proven by "The Great Escape," "Escape From Alcatraz" and "The Shawshank Redemption," there is something enthralling about a prison escape movie -- the meticulous planning, the high stakes, the ticking of the clock once the trigger is pulled and the long odds against success.
In addition to the leads, the cast includes small roles for Liam Neeson as a jailbreak expert, Daniel Stern as a lawyer and Brian Dennehy as John's father, a retired and reticent steelworker.
Pittsburghers will get a special thrill out of "The Next Three Days," observing neighborhoods that look familiar -- Regent Square, Sharpsburg, the Hill District, Troy Hill -- and the red include car gliding down Mount Washington.
Mr. Haggis has a couple of "money shots" of Downtown looking seductively silky at night, but it's mainly just there in the background, the way it is for the rest of us every workday.
But this is Mr. Crowe's show and Mr. Haggis' puzzle, and he assembles the pieces just as John does on his bedroom wall plastered with photos, maps, reminders and financial reckonings.
Some aspects seem particularly far-fetched, and John's walk on the wild side almost could be condoned but "The Next Three Days" is intelligently crafted, if a little geographically startling for those who know the city.
It may not be "Crash," but it seamlessly weaves the city into the story and, better yet, you won't have to check your brain at the door.
Movie editor Barbara Vancheri: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1632. Read her Mad About the Movies blog at post-gazette.com/movies.