A few weeks ago I was bellyaching in this space about American remakes of foreign films inevitably going wrong. Here comes "The Next 3 Days" to make a liar out of me. It's a cool, engrossing thriller; intelligent, packed with shivering suspense, populated with marvelous characters and (unless you've seen the French original, "Pour Elle") impressively unpredictable. The movie's title doesn't even appear on the screen until the film is an hour old.

Russell Crowe is John Brennan, a Pittsburgh community-college teacher whose volatile wife, Lara (Elizabeth Banks), is serving a life sentence for murder. The film squanders little time on the issue of her guilt. A studio thriller ordinarily would go to great lengths to reassure audiences that they are identifying with a wrongly convicted innocent. Not doing so is one of the shrewdest moves in this very shrewd movie; it concentrates our attention on the matter at hand.

John, convinced that Lara will die in prison unless he acts, begins plotting her escape. He doesn't tell her, knowing that she would veto a plan that could backfire, leaving their 6-year-old Luke an orphan. Secretively, methodically, John begins transforming himself from a respectable middle-class single father into a criminal. It is an intimidating and dangerous process that blurs the line between his best and worst impulses.

John is sharply drawn. He follows clear motivations. The loner son of a terse, distant father (Brian Dennehy, making a huge impression with minimal dialogue), John uses working-class Irish irony to keep self-pity at bay. He keeps his emotions bottled up because if they erupt, his family will never be reunited.

He arranges a barroom meeting with a famed prison-escape artist (a cameo too neat to spoil) who warns him of the snares and traps awaiting him. If he does this thing, he will have to be willing to kill anyone who blocks his route. Crowe's guarded expression shows that John is silently interrogating himself: Is his anger great enough? Is he tough enough to deal with the thugs he will encounter? A bruising early attempt to buy fake passports suggests that he's not the man for this job. A late reversal, when he bludgeons Lara with awful emotional blackmail, makes us question whether we've been rooting for the right man.

Crowe is perfectly matched to the role, and Banks, in a departure from comedy, is solid as his wife. Writer/director Paul Haggis ("Crash") stocks the peripheral roles with vividly effective character actors. An exacting craftsman, Haggis draws us into the characters' lives gradually. Starting slowly is the key to igniting the thrill-packed climax. When it's finally time for split-second escapes, we've completely identified with John. We're with him when his mission drives him to the brink of unforgivable acts. We will him not to act too ruthlessly, yet we wish he'd succeed.

At times the film seems stunningly conventional. In his study, John creates the clichéd Wall of Obsession, pasting maps, photos, escape routes and timetables into a giant collage. But don't smirk too soon; the old device is setting up a clever reversal farther down the road.

Haggis relishes subverting expectations. Unlike "The Great Escape," where we watch a plan develop and savor its unfolding, "The Next 3 Days" skillfully keeps us uncertain what's happening. Something John does with a bolt-cutter pays off much later; actions that seem like mistakes later surprise the police and us viewers. We don't know what John has up his sleeve, and each crisis makes us wonder if he will recover. Freed from needless exposition, the tension builds relentlessly. "The Next 3 Days" is a textbook case of economical, suspenseful screen storytelling.

Colin Covert • 612-673-7186