Law Abiding Citizen is a well-directed, entertaining movie that suffers from one unfortunate affliction: It makes absolutely no sense. There’s a certain amount of suspension of disbelief required by any sort of big budget urban thriller with lots of explosions, stern bureaucrats, macho posturing and self-righteous vengeance. Anybody who’s seen the Death Wish series or any other B (or lower) grade revenge pictures knows what I’m talking about. But this film, from director F. Gary Gray and screenwriter Kurt Wimmer, asks for far, far too much of it.
It stars Jamie Foxx as Nick Rice, a self-serious Philadelphia district attorney who consents to a plea bargain with the murderers of Clyde Shelton’s (Gerard Butler) wife and daughter because of insufficient evidence for a criminal trial. Big freaking mistake. Ten years later, the murderers suffer heinous graphic deaths, the last of which involves a gruesome dismemberment carried out on one of the multiple industrial properties Clyde’s spent the last decade purchasing. After he’s arrested, confessed and “safely” behind bars he continues making threats and, lo and behold, the objects of his threats keep dying.
The entire picture turns, then, on one simple question: How’s he doing it? Is the entire thing a coincidence? Does he have an accomplice? Or maybe he’s just a psychic? Or, is he God? There are so many possibilities here, such an opportunity to go to a weird psychedelic place, and the movie completely squanders them. A tame version of Saw, with Clyde setting up puzzles and Nick racing to solve them, the movie lacks even the ingenuity of the original. It needs Clyde’s talent to be more than a flashy MacGuffin, and that’s all it ends up being.
So we’re left with a movie that has style to spare but nothing to substantiate it. The filmmaker crams elements of nearly every sort of urban thriller into his visual approach. There are low angle shots of overcoat clad characters walking in front of the city’s mammoth City Hall, with steam from their breath protruding out, that have the brisk snappy feel of an old-fashioned political conspiracy story. At other times Law Abiding Citizen resembles a gritty prison drama, particularly during one scene set behind bars that’s marked by an unexpected and unembellished stabbing. As the raised camera follows a car racing down a lamp lit thoroughfare at night the film takes on the feel of a flashy high end crime drama. At still other moments, Gray borrows the tropes of the modern espionage picture.
They’re all presented with the highest production values and the filmmaker has a particular knack for conveying the brutality of sudden, extreme graphic violence. Further, Butler is genuinely creepy as a sociopath, a characterization colored all the more so by the fact that he so bastardizes understandable motives. Foxx again shows himself to be a credible leading man, handling the role of the put-upon, ever-so-slightly-out-of-his-league-tough-guy. He knows how to act scared without seeming it, which is a unique talent.
And yet it’s impossible to accept one minute of Law Abiding Citizen. It’s so preposterous, so repetitive in the cycle of Butler threat-Foxx action-Butler threat and so condescending in the ways it flouts logic that it can’t be fully enjoyed, even as a brainless lark. It’s a blatantly manufactured piece of work, an assembly line caliber product that borrows so heavily from better movies that it often seems more like a walking compendium of film references than a coherent movie on its own. The characterizations and plotting are so chaotic that one feels driven to uncover the mystery mostly to confirm that it’s as ridiculous and convoluted as it seems promised to be. Without giving anything away suffice it to say that the ending, when all is explained, won’t let you down.
The Upside: F. Gary Gray is a fine action director and he keeps the film moving at a brisk pace.
The Downside: The screenplay makes no sense whatsoever.
On the Side: This has been a busy year for Gerard Butler. Law Abiding Citizen is his third film in 2009.