‘Tis the season of children’s movies, big-budget franchises and Oscar hopefuls, but there’s a different kind of film moving me this year. I know what you’re thinking: what could possibly be more thrilling than “Harry Potter?” That’s easy, a thriller…You know the genre – conspiracy theories, intrigue, gut-wrenching music and nail-biting deadlines – and I’m happy to say two flicks in theaters right now fulfill these requirements and then some. The first is “Fair Game,” starring Naomi Watts and Sean Penn, and the second is “The Next Three Days,” starring Russell Crowe and Elizabeth Banks. Both movies are great rides and I recommend them to anyone looking for a little excitement at the box office this weekend, but they deliver very different types of thrills so I’d suggest reading on to determine which is your cup of tea.
“Fair Game” is based on the true story of Valerie Plame and Joe Wilson, the couple whose family lives and careers were turned upside down during the weapons-of-mass-destruction scandals of 2003. If you don’t remember the political uproar involving Valerie Plame and Karl Rove, don’t worry because the movie does a great job of filling you in. To pique your interest, however, I’ll simply tell you that this movie is a story of a CIA operative who loses her job when the White House leaks her identity. The tension and thrills of this film are rooted in political intrigue and further heightened by Naomi Watts’ exquisite performance, which will get you cheering for her from the start. Sean Penn gives an equally memorable performance as Watts’ strong-willed and rather unlikeable husband, adding a unique layer of suspense regarding the couple’s strained marriage. (I should note that I normally detest dramas that are simply about turbulent marriages, but watching the all-too-human struggle of two disparate people fighting against the world to keep their love alive is riveting in the context of this thriller.) There are not the typical action sequences you might expect from this genre, but you will be gripped by the constant threat of lives, marriages, and countries that are at stake.
“The Next Three Days” is a more conventional thriller, packed with guns and enough action sequences to take home leftovers in a doggy bag. The movie centers on a man’s attempt to break his wife out of jail, and it does a great job of keeping you guessing…You’re often left guessing whether Elizabeth Banks’ character is innocent or guilty of murder, guessing how far Russell Crowe will go to save her, and even guessing what happened between the opening scene and when we next see Banks in jail several years later. Of all of these guessing games, I would say the most important is the way the film keeps the audience in the dark about key elements of Crowe’s plan to break Banks out of jail – it delicately balances what we do and do not know, and uses this tightrope act to keep us in a maximum state of suspense. It is gripping to watch Crowe transform from a humble community college professor into a man who readily blows up crystal-meth labs, and this only augments the film’s slow build of tension. However, make no mistake: this is not a character piece. This is a flick solely focused on the urgency of a ticking clock and a man’s warrior-like attempt to outsmart the corrections system. In short, if you want character thrills go see “Fair Game,” and if you want white-knuckle-action thrills go see “The Next Three Days.”
Psst: Any other good thrillers in movie theaters right now? I’ve heard glowing things about “Unstoppable,” but I’ve never been fond of movies that take place on trains – yes, this means I vastly preferred “Under Siege” to “Under Siege 2.” If anyone can make a good case for “Unstoppable,” though, I think I can bring myself to see it. Let the convincing begin.