The opening shot of Law Abiding Citizen swirls around the statue of William Penn, one of the most well-known pacifist thinkers of early American history, as he stands atop the courthouse in Philadelphia. The camera will return to him once or twice more during the film, an interesting reminder amidst the violence and willingness to sink well below the human base and deep into the realm where taking another person’s life seems the only logical recourse on which the film feeds. There are some interesting ideas here – What do you do to fight against a system? How can there be true justice? Was Denzel Washington busy?
Clyde Shelton (Gerard Butler) loses his entire world when two home invaders kill his wife and daughter. Instead of working the long hours and fighting for justice, rising legal star Nick Rice (Jamie Foxx) cuts a deal for a confession and preserves his conviction rate while one of the killers goes free after serving only five years. Ten years later, Clyde goes systematically hunting for the cogs of the system that let him and his family down.
While it may resemble some revenge flicks of the past – most notably Vigilante – it has something far more intellectual going on underneath its slick exterior. Instead of grabbing a shotgun and a van to go blow away the people who done him wrong, Clyde utilizes his background as an inventor (and some convenient time spent in what must be CIA black ops) to set a plan in motion so he can kill people even from behind the cold steel of prison bars. Imagine if a more sane version (and more charismatic version) of Jigsaw got sent up the river, but refused to quit murdering.
What I love about this film is its unwillingness to compromise, for the most part, on what one man might do if his loved ones were taken from him in vain. The opening scene of him tinkering with a motherboard alongside his daughter as she makes a bracelet is short, sweet, and creates all the bond you need to know before the catalyst sets the rest of the movie in motion. From that point, and while Clyde gets his revenge, the film does two things incredibly well. The first is making you question what you would do, staring down on your wife and daughter’s killer, helpless as he struggles against the table you’ve strapped him down to. The second is making you root for a man about to commit murder, a theme which continues, without you really being fully conscious of it.
Clyde loses it, and this film is unafraid of what that has to mean.
Filling the ethical gray area is Gerard Butler who nails his character about as completely as someone could. He chooses to play the darker parts under the surface, so he’s more method than outburst, but there’s something intensely scary about someone who knows they have the upper hand but chooses not to broadcast it. After all, finding out you’ve been bested is far more crushing than being told you’re outgunned. On the other side of the fence, Jamie Foxx continues to Denzel his career, and delivers a passable performance, but the deficit there comes more from problems in the third act than it does from Foxx himself.
So there’s that. While the movie delivers an ethical monologue hidden in tense writing and situations (and a little bit of the ultra-violence), it suffers in the third act mostly from the inactivity and idleness of Attorney Rice throughout the other acts. He’s more reactive than anything else, indicative of his character flaw of being generally lazy (or simply unwilling to fight all that hard), but while the character flaw adds a lot to the story, it also hurts the third act when it doesn’t exactly play out in an organic way. Ultimately, it’s disappointing, but it’s not enough to sink the movie altogether. It drags it from great to good, certainly, but the movie is still a great ride for the first bulk of its sleek 108 minute run time.
There are some great thrills and kills here for action fans – especially a jaw-droppingly awesome one that teaches an important lesson about answering your cell phone during a meeting. Law Abiding Citizen does not shy away from either displaying some harsh justice or hinting at it strongly enough to let the audience’s imagine spill the blood itself. To match, it has some great moments where shitty people get just as much damage to their egos as their bodies. The best is a courtroom scene, that seems to homage Vigilante directly, where Butler’s character (representing himself) argues successfully that he should be let out on bail, and then reprimands the moronic judge for agreeing with him considering he’s wanted for a double murder. It’s a solid segment that takes the frustration of the system, and the trusted people of that system, destroying Clyde’s life and shoves it right back in the face of an idiotic public official in front of a court room of members of the public and press.
In fact, that’s probably what this movie does best – balancing out all of its elements. Whereas most revenge films are fairly stupid, here is one that fits somewhere in the center of a Venn diagram between revenge, drama, and murder mystery. It’s smart and smartly acted, and only really suffers from what seems like a studio-written ending.
The Upside: A little bit to think about in an action flick, great acting, some smart dialog and cathartic moments.
The Downside: A third act that seems tacked on and drags the success of the film down considerably.
On the Side: Law Abiding Citizen director F. Gary Gray also has an MTV Music Award for Best Video of the Year for T.L.C.’s “Waterfalls.”