"Law Abiding Citizen, the new film starring Gerard Butler (in his third film in six months) and Jamie Foxx, is one of those films that seems to be recycled from elements from other films. It is almost as though someone said lets make a film about a father who seeks revenge, like in "Death Wish", throw in some legal maneuvers, like any John Grisham film, throw in some shots of a crazy man imprisoned in a special cell, like in "Silence of the Lambs", and throw in some good old grisly torture scenes, like in so many 'torture porn' films. The mix is so new, so fresh, that it is original. It will be a huge hit.
Yes, the mix is new, but when you take well-known elements from questionable films and simply combine them, you end up with a mess, a mess that most people will be able to spot as a recycled piece of crap and stay away from the multiplex.
For the unlucky few that do actually go to watch this film, it will not be a pleasant experience.
But there is an overriding thought, a glimmer of hope carrying the viewer through the experience. When even this idea is purposely discarded, you might leave the theater as upset as I was.
Clyde Shelton (Butler) returns home one evening to his loving wife and child. There is a knock at the door and two men barge in and tie everyone up. They leave Clyde alive to watch as his wife is murdered and then raped by Clarence Darby (Christian Stolte). The two men then walk towards Clyde's daughter's room as he blacks out. A few months later, Deputy District Attorney Nick Rice (Jamie Foxx) has accepted a plea bargain from Darby who will testify against his partner for a reduced sentence of a few years in prison. Darby's partner will receive the death penalty. Clyde is enraged and can't believe the Deputy DA won't take the case to court. He saw both men and will ID them, but Rice doesn't want to take a chance on a trial that might impact his conviction rate negatively. Clyde is one very upset man Ten years later, as Darby's accomplice faces lethal injection; Rice brings his younger protégé to the prison to watch. But something goes wrong, horribly wrong and the man dies a painful death. A few hours later, as the police zero in on Darby (who has since been released from prison) Clyde kidnaps the criminal and takes him to one of his own warehouses. The fact that Clyde now owns a number of properties is a long, complicated part of the story. When Darby wakes up, he finds himself strapped down to a worktable with various needles in him. Clyde, wearing a mask, turns on a video recorder and begins to extract revenge. Thus begins an elaborate tale of cat and mouse as Clyde attempts to extract revenge on all of those people responsible for his wife and child's murderers going free. In other words, he begins to extract revenge on the entire legal system.
"Law Abiding Citizen" spends a lot of time making us feel sympathetic for Clyde. And it does a good job of it, we feel sympathetic for Clyde even as he begins to extract his revenge and start killing off all of the Deputy DAs, policemen, judges, elected officials and more who he feels were responsible for the lack of punishment for the murders of his family. And the film spends a lot of time making us sort of loathe the very ground Rice walks on. Again, it does a good job of making him seem slightly good, possibly more crooked and oily than he should be. The end result seems clear. Then the filmmakers throw other elements into the mix. As the film opens, Rice's wife is pregnant and they have just moved into a new house. Ten years later, they have a beautiful daughter and a beautiful house. Surely, Clyde won't do anything to them, it would make him seem too similar to Darby and erase a lot of the sympathy we have for him. Surely, Rice will feel a little more empathetic to Clyde now that he has a girl of his own. Surely, he can relate more?
But the film decides to buck the trend. Clyde does in fact do something that brings some terror into the lives of Nick's daughter and wife. It isn't much, but it does open the eyes of both Nick and the viewer. Clyde means business and he doesn't care if he ruffles a few young feathers to get the message across. Unfortunately, this does serve to make him also less empathetic. It makes the story more interesting, because he is willing to go to any lengths.
As the film proceeds, you become aware of a point where the character development stops and the story simply becomes a tale of revenge. F. Gary Gray, the director of such films as "The Italian Job" and "Be Cool" and his screenwriter Kurt Wimmer ("Street Kings", "The Recruit") seem more interested in this aspect of the story as well. Each of the executions seems designed to provide a little puzzle for Rice and his team and to illustrate the extent Clyde will go in order to extract revenge. Some of these are interesting, surprising, even a little over the top even if they seem better suited to the newest "Final Destination" film rather than a film about a mourning father extracting revenge. But they don't help to provide character development.
And I was willing to go along for the ride. Clyde deserves revenge because he is given a really raw deal and Butler makes us believe in his pain, his remorse and his determination to get revenge. I was willing to overlook the over-the-top "Saw"-esque revenge scene and the cobbled together nature of the story. That is how successful Butler is at making us believe in his character.
That is, I was willing to go along for the ride until the final act of the film begins to unfold. And perhaps this part of the film ruined the rest because of Foxx's inability to make us feel anything for his character, Nick Rice. Throughout the film, Rice is more than a little shady, more than a little crooked and willing to bend the rules to help his career advance. Later, after his wife and daughter receive a little threat from Clyde, he doesn't really change this very much and seems to continue along his merry path. Foxx is good at making us feel there is an underlying need for his character to get ahead, to advance to the next step in the system.
But as the film winds down, everything we have been feeling for the two characters is supposed to change 180. And the two central characters aren't given the time or the material to make this happen. And because of this, the film fails. Miserably.
As we left the theater, I remarked to my companion that the film's morality reflected the old gangster films of the thirties. You spend an hour or so with a gangster and learn to like him and then, because of the production code, he had to get "what he deserved" and either be arrested by the police or die. Unfortunately, this type of moral code doesn't fly with the film we have just watched and makes the entire thing seem like a waste of time.