It’s hard not to like a film as ballsy as Law Abiding Citizen; so brazen that it actually revels in its ridiculousness. It’s exactly the kind of film the phrase “by-the-numbers” was invented for, but like the best genre films, it acknowledges its niche and goes all out to top its predecessors. The film is an entertaining throwback to those right-wing revenge films of the 1980s, in which the death sentence is considered just, and anyone screaming about “human rights” is just a dirty, filthy commie. As a human being with values (kinda), I can’t help but reject the film’s primary definition of justice. But, if Inglourious Basterds taught us anything, movies have a habit of turning the most peaceful cinemagoer into a bloodthirsty animal. And that’s part of the reason why we love ‘em.
Retelling the mechanics of the plot would be as maddeningly convoluted as attempting to explain the first five seasons of Lost, so I’ll be mercifully brief. Gerard Butler plays Clyde Shelton, an engineer whose family is randomly targeted by two malicious home invaders. Shelton blacks out, and his wife and daughter are subsequently murdered. Although his attackers are eventually arrested, there isn’t enough evidence to see them both sentenced to life in prison. Prosecutor Nick Rice (Jamie Foxx), unwilling to ruin his impressive conviction rate, makes a deal that will see one of the attackers get the chair, and the other go free after 3 years in jail. Unsurprisingly, Shelton feels that justice has not been served.
Anyone who has ever seen a revenge film before (or for that matter, any film at all) can probably guess what happens next. Shelton takes it upon himself to dish out his own brand of justice against not only his freed attacker, but also the members of the legal system who did him wrong – specifically Nick Rice. Where Law Abiding Citizen diverts from other films of this ilk is in the execution. Literally. The way Shelton goes about exacting his justice is, interesting, to say the least. Completely implausible and laughably insane, yes. But still interesting. Relax; you’ll receive no spoilers from me. After all, seeing Shelton brutally murder people (at one point with a piece of food) is the closest the film comes to being entertaining.
That being said – the film is pretty damn entertaining, no doubt the result of the sheer volume and brutality of the kill scenes. Director F. Gary Gray has made a solid career for himself with energetic, undemanding action films, and Law Abiding Citizen is no different. The action set-pieces are well orchestrated and the script (by Kurt Wimmer) is serviceable. Gray really shines however when given the opportunity to pit two charismatic actors against one another (see: Spacey vs. Jackson in The Negotiator). Now, Butler and Foxx may not exactly be on par with Spacey and Jackson, but they do well enough. Very little is asked of them, and they walk away from the project with their career and dignity intact. For two actors who have starred in cataclysmic clunkers like The Ugly Truth and Stealth, what more could they ask?
On a side note, Law Abiding Citizen features supporting performances from Colm Meaney, Viola Davis, Gregory Itzin, and a personal favourite actor of mine, Roger Bart. Although I have no particular desire to see this film recast with Bart and Itzin in the lead roles, I can’t help but feel that a better (different) picture could have been made with these actors at the head of the cast. But I guess a film doesn’t make money by boasting a shirtless Meaney on the poster.