Starring Jamie Foxx and Gerard Butler. Rated R for strong bloody brutal violence and torture, a scene of rape, and pervasive language. 108 minutes.
Take the Charles Bronson “Death Wish” movies, cross them with cable’s “Dexter,” and add just a soupçon of the depraved “Saw” series, and you’ve got a recipe for LAW ABIDING CITIZEN. It’s an undeniably riveting fantasy of vengeance. It’s not a critique of the criminal justice system, rather, it wants us to believe that until our prosecutors and courts focus on torturing criminal defendants to death that it is soft on crime.
We first meet Clyde Shelton (Gerard Butler) tinkering in his home workshop. His adorable daughter is stringing beads when his lovely wife goes to answer the door. Don’t get too attached to Clyde’s family. They will soon be brutally murdered by two thugs. Assistant district attorney Nick Rice (Jamie Foxx) accepts an offer by the real killer to turn state’s evidence against his partner, who gets the death penalty. Meanwhile the other guy walks in three years.
Nick says it’s the best the system can do but Clyde feels otherwise. Without giving too much plot away, he gets his revenge on both of the thugs, but as far as he’s concerned, his work is only beginning. There’s their defense attorney, the judge who is too concerned about constitutional rights, the prosecutors too quick to make a deal, the mayor of the city… Clyde has a long list of people who are going to pay, but oddly spares Nick although making his family suffer a bit in the process.
What keeps this interesting is that early on Clyde is arrested for the torture and dismemberment of one of the thugs, and seems positively blasé about it. When he argues on his own behalf at a pre-trial hearing, he makes such a strong case the judge is willing to let him go. He then berates the judge for being willing to put a killer (i.e., himself) back on the street. While he’s in prison, the killings continue. Does he have a gang of accomplices? How is he directing them from solitary confinement? It’s a nifty mystery even if the solution turns out to be pretty far-fetched.
Foxx is the earnest hero trying to stop a string of killings that are getting more and more personal. It’s not the sort of part that will get him an Oscar nomination, and he plays it in a square-jawed, straightforward manner. It’s a part any competent actor could walk through without breaking into a sweat. Butler’s role is more complicated. He starts out as the aggrieved victim and then turns into a vigilante. For a while we’re on his side. In revenge fantasies, we don’t shed tears for brutal thugs. The movie wants us to admire his cleverness and only later decide that he’s gone “too far.”
The filmmakers are playing with fire here. Action fans will enjoy “Law Abiding Citizen;” one can only hope they don’t confuse it with the real world.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being I’ll Have What She’s Having: Behind The Scenes Of The Great Romantic Comedies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Brookline.