Law Abiding Citizen (2009)
, , , ,
108 min.
Release Date
Law Abiding Citizen

Depending on your sense of morality, and your faith in the justice system, Law Abiding Citizen might be a wonderful cat-and-mouse thriller or a substandard one with a preposterous and disappointing climax. Or maybe it’s a combination of the two: a cat-and-mouse thriller with a preposterous climax. That sounds more accurate. Filled with equal parts bloody carnage and plot holes, this vigilante yarn, more concerned with explosions and bloodletting than voicing its potential social commentary, unravels into a disorganized tangle that will more likely enrage viewers than entertain them.

Seemingly everyman engineer Clyde Shelton (Gerard Butler) watches his wife and child get murdered during a home robbery in the film’s first scenes. His conviction-rate-obsessed attorney Nick Rice (Jamie Foxx) would rather cut a deal than risk going to trial, so one of the two killers gets a five-year sentence for snitching, while the other gets the death penalty. Understandably, that’s not good enough for Clyde. Ten years pass, and at the eventual execution, something goes horribly wrong and the killer dies in agony, as opposed to the intended painless way. Meanwhile, Shelton finds, tortures, and kills the other home invader by cutting him into twenty-five pieces. When the cops pick Shelton up for his revenge murder, they find Shelton was smart, and they have almost no evidence against him.

As Rice and the DA’s office try to build a case, Shelton curiously arranges a series of hits from his prison cell, sending an obscured and ultimately lost message to Rice and the entire legal system. Shelton asks them to cut him a deal, but only to prove a point that attorneys and judges shouldn’t cut deals with murders. Whatever happened to justice, he wonders. But while he’s preaching his own moral code, he’s also wiping out anyone involved in the trial of his family’s killer, no matter how small a role they played in the case. Did Rice’s clerks really deserve to die, or is Shelton getting a little over-zealous? Instead of teaching lessons, Shelton goes on a sick rampage, using remote control machine guns, tiny explosives, and car bombs to exact his vengeance. The question remains: How is he doing all this from a jail cell? The answer is laughably stupid and the deal-breaker on the entire experience.

A glorified Saw movie starring A-list actors, this gruesome tale of misguided retribution, written by Equilibrium scribe Kurt Wimmer, doesn’t bother making logical conclusions, and so its ethics teeter-totter on a slippery slope (sorry about the mixed metaphor). It would prefer that its audience enjoy watching Butler, whose experience on 300 and Gamer makes him no stranger to excessive violence, slaughtering family killers through elaborate and ridiculously clever schemes. At one point, he warns that his revenge plans are “gonna be biblical,” and if he means that innocents will be butchered in the name of a misguided cause, he’s right. Butler is good in this sort of one-note role, and for the film’s first half, watching him get his justified revenge is sort of cathartic. But then his character goes too far and loses our sympathy, whereas Foxx’s character was indifferent from the get-go. So this unbalance leaves the audience feeling that neither Shelton nor Rice is particularly deserving of our understanding.

The erratic tone alternates between the two characters, and in the end, the film resolves to pick one as the hero, but the correct choice would’ve been to point out the misdeeds of both. Frank Darabont, the writer-director behind The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile, was attached to direct this film at one point; he left the production over ever-ambiguous “creative differences.” Darabont is a filmmaker who knows how to end a movie—just look at his masterpiece, The Mist. Had he remained on the production, undoubtedly Law Abiding Citizen’s problems would’ve been fixed. Instead, his replacement, F. Gary Gray of The Negotiator and The Italian Job fame has attempted to make his story as clear-cut as possible, leaving the film muddled with mixed messages and absurd explanations.

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