Law Abiding Citizen comes straight out of the John Grisham school of writing: a deeply plotted, high-concept premise filled with one-note characters right out of the Acme Big Book of Clichés. We’ve seen it all before, a hundred times over, but that wont stop it from being a high-octane crowd pleaser filed under the ‘Guilty Pleasures’ section of the DVD collection. The kind of film you grudgingly enjoy despite your better judgement.
Staring Jamie Foxx as Nick Rice, a high-flying legal eagle more concerned with his conviction rate than bringing villains to justice, and Gerard Butler as Clyde Shelton, the everyman whose personal tragedy is sidelined by Foxx’s relentless career climbing, out for revenge on the system that wronged him. The hook here is the sprinkling of ultra violence into the mix – because gore porn is just so hot right now – which gives Law Abiding Citizen a shot at piggybacking on the Halloween Saw franchise hype.
After witnessing the brutal murder of his wife and child by a couple of low-rent thugs, Butler is disgusted when Foxx cuts a plea bargain deal the ringleader, Darby, who gets off with a couple of years after testifying against his accomplice, Ames. Fast forward ten years, and Butler is ready to reap his vigilante vengeance on everyone involved with the case.
Less of a ‘who done it’ than a ‘how’s he done it’, the mystery and tension of the film comes from how Butler manages to fulfil most of his reign of terror from inside the solitary confinement wing of a maximum security prison. Foxx spends much of the film blundering through Butler’s ‘deals’, each of which sends him deeper into the many-levelled chess game of Clyde’s vendetta, outclassed by the amoral master tactician.
This is where Law Abiding Citizen really comes into its own. While the first act is a little clunky, and the third relentlessly ludicrous, the middle section has the promise of a great movie.
Butler, despite his mushy-mouthed shtick, will have you rooting for Clyde far more than Foxx’s smug lawyer. The interrogation scenes, where the two leads perform a series of mano-a-mano mental duels, are griping, with the dialogue jabbing and fading like boxers testing their opponent’s defence. As Butler says, “It’s gonna be Biblical…”
There are important questions being asked here. Clyde’s actions mock the nature of the judicial system, bringing its inadequacies sharply into focus. He allows himself to be caught red handed, but with enough circumstantial technicalities to get off, then bargains his way into the stronger position.
But, as the film progresses this gets washed over, settling into a more familiar ‘race against time to stop the evil genius’ routine. As happens so often in Hollywood films, the fear of too harshly exposing the more questionable idiosyncrasies of the America ruling establishment kicks in.
Director F. Gary Gray (Friday, The Italian Job) keeps the narrative ticking over, and adds in some clever visual flourishes, the juxtaposition of a school cello recital with a state execution a notable highpoint.
While the supporting cast, full of trusted actors like Colm Meaney and Bruce McGill, are solid in their under-written roles, it’s, basically, a checklist of standard thriller back catalogue characters, like the ‘hard bitten Irish cop’ and ‘father figure mentor’, but that’s kind of the point in films like this.
It’s fair to say then, that Law Abiding Citizen almost won me over. Unfortunately, the key word here is ‘almost’. As much as I enjoyed myself in parts, I couldn’t quite engage all the way through.
The gore porn angle is over-sold and those going to the cinema for a Halloween fright fest will be disappointed (just swallow your dignity and go and see Saw whatever-it-is-now). It’s not a horror or really even that graphic. It just has a high body count. What this will do is alienate the film’s natural audience, who’ll more than likely get put off by the tag.
Law Abiding Citizen could have been a great film, a dark counterculture thriller in the vein of Se7en or Silence Of The Lambs. But, by resorting to pantomime, it robs itself of credibility. Shame.
It’s still a good watch, just instantly forgettable. A little ambiguity would have gone a long way.
However, Gerard Butler wipes the floor with Jamie Foxx. And whoever thought they would say that?