A film review by Craig J. Koban October 23, 2009


2009, R, 108 mins.

Nick: Jamie Foxx / Clyde: Gerard Butler / Dunnigan: Colm Meaney / Jonas: Bruce McGill / Mayor: Viola Davis

Directed by F. Gary Gray / Written by Kurt Wimmer

LAW ABIDING CITIZEN is a would-be intense and involving thriller that very quickly morphs into something that I will best describe as being brain hemorrhagely ridiculous.  The only thing that would have made it more tolerable is if it were performed with marionettes, seeing as the decent actors here are all but puppet-like victims to the limitless implausibility of the inane script.  What’s even worse about the film is that it attempts to retrofit the court room/police procedural thriller with the ghastly and gratuitously gory trimmings of the torture porn genre, and it makes for a highly indigestible hybrid.  LAW ABIDING CITIZEN is an atypically head scratching film experience: It boldly forces one to look at the screen with wide-eyed incredulity and ask a simple question:

“What possible motivation did the A-list talent on board here have for participating in this crapfest?” 

Beat’s me.   

Now, there is sometimes nothing more entertaining than a schlocky, cheaply disposable, and wickedly exploitative show-no-mercy revenge thriller.  Nothing wrong at all.  However, with most of the popular examples of the genre (i.e. DEATH WISH) there always seemed to be some modest grounding of the proceedings in some sort of reality.  

Regrettably, LAW ABIDING CITIZEN asks us – make that forces us  - to take Herculean leaps to suspend our disbelief in its underlining story and premise.  There is no denying that when the film’s good, decent, and law abiding everyman turns into a one man kick ass murder squad, there is some initial exhilaration to be had in seeing him commit his ultimate comeuppance against his enemies (some of his kills are gruesome and fiendishly clever).  However, once the film takes a radical turn for the worse and reveals that this Charles Bronson wannabe continues to perpetrate a series of unforgivably complicated killings while in police custody, the film then strains credulity and made it increasingly difficult for me to take it seriously.  When we are given a large reveal that precisely pinpoints the methods of this resourceful madmen, you cringe at just how eye-rollingly superficial and outrageous that are.  As a result, LAW ABIDING CITIZEN is one of the most continuously uproarious films of the year, which is not a compliment, seeing as it is not trying to be a comedy. 

The movie opens with a sequence that is unsettling and legitimately nauseating.  We meet Clyde Shelton (Gerard Butler, thanklessly decent here, considering what he has to work with) that is enjoying a nice and quiet evening at home with his wife and young daughter.  Without warming, two vile criminals force themselves into his home, bind and gag Clyde and his wife and daughter, and then proceed to ruthlessly kill them in front of his eyes.  The film flash forwards to several months in the future when Philadelphia’s assistant D.A. Nick Rice (Jamie Foxx, all but snoozing through his part) decides that the only way to help preserve his 96 per cent conviction rate is to allow one of the two suspects (the one that actually did all of the killing) to cop a plea and give evidence against the other perp in exchange for a lighter and reduced sentence.    Part of the reason that the hotshot lawyer takes this course of action is based on the facts that the case against the main killer was botched because of a bungled forensic investigation.  This news completely unsettles the downtrodden Clyde, who pleads with Nick to try him anyway on the initial charges.  Nick, rather cautiously, informs his client that justice often has nothing to do with what’s right, but rather what you can prove in court. 

Needless to say, Nick goes forward with his plans to prosecute, which leads to the one suspect to be sent to die in prison via lethal injection and the other more guilty one all but gets off clean with a drastically shorter sentence.  This all but sends Clyde into an immoral rage; he feels utterly betrayed by the Nick, the D.A’s office, and by the justice system on the whole.  Because of this, Clyde then spends the next decade plotting an elaborate scheme to seek his bloodthirsty revenge.  His revenge plot is not without ambition: he not only wants to make the remaining criminal suffer, but he also wants to destroy the entire Philadelphia justice system on the whole, right down to Nick, the judge that tried the case, and most of the city officials involved as well.  

Eat yer heart out, Punisher!   

In one of the film’s more intense sequences, Clyde does capture the rapist and murderer of his wife and child (with a plan that is just the beginning of the film's many highly improbable moments) and, in pure SAW-esque fashion, he disposes of the man in the most inhuman and gut-wrenching manner possible.  Now, it is at this point where the film’s mind-numbing stupidity begins to originate: Nick and the rest of the D.A’s office take an inordinately long time to figure out that – wait a tick! – maybe Clyde has something to do with this killing (of course, any legal professional would have been able to immediately suspect Clyde, but none of this film’s lawyers do, mostly because they are idiots).  When they finally decide to arrest Clyde (in a highly circumstantial manner; they have no tangible evidence to arrest him, nor enough to warrant the Swat squad army of police officers that are sent to arrest him), they do not realize that Clyde has a highly convoluted game of cat and mouse he will play with the prosecutors.  Clyde skillfully maneuvers himself out of a legal confession and – for the remainder of the film – he begins to hatch his outrageously clever and monstrous plot to kill…well…”everyone.”  “It’s going to be Biblical,” he chimes in to Nick at one point. 

If there were one interesting angle to LAW ABIDING CITIZEN then it would be in the arena of where the script places our immediate sympathy.  Clyde is, by all accounts, a clear-cut victim and an obvious source of our mutual understanding.  The justice system ripped him off and now he wants to impart a sense of real justice back on those that promised to do so.  Nick, on the other hand, is arguably the least sympathetic in the sense that he, at first, seems more loyal to maintaining his reputation as a winning prosecutor than with doing what’s morally right (granted, all lawyers, at some time or another, must perform their jobs within the troubling parameters of a moral vacuum).  It’s that grey area between delineating hero and villain that’s an endlessly compelling angle, but the main problem with LAW ABIDING CITIZEN is that – as it progresses – it never seems to be sure whom its rooting for.  Even when Clyde begins to massacre people – especially ones that are indirectly innocent – I found it hard not to root for this highly vengeful anti-hero turned psychopath.  By comparison, Nick represents all that is wrong with the system that Clyde has labeled as being cancerous and ruined, therefore making it hard for us to root for Nick and his partners.  By the fateful conclusion, I still never gained a firm understanding of which person the film was absolving and which one it was chastising.  The script just seems a bit aimless and befuddled.

However, the troublesome character focus if the film is not its undoing, but rather its borderline asinine explanations for how Clyde manages to – while in a maximum security prison  – kill everyone he sets his sights on.  Either he has someone on the outside or he is an omnipotent deity that can be in more than one place at the same time.  I will not give anything concrete away here, other than to say that Clyde does in fact work completely alone and manages to kill his victims with various methods that involve burying people to death, multiple timed explosives, large scale bombs, booby-trapped cell phones, and remote controlled robots.  Oh, he also manages to use the leftover bone of a steak diner to grisly effect as well, in a shockingly barbaric sequence.

Yet, the fact remains that Clyde perpetrates all of his crimes while in prison and, for an extended period, while in solitary confinement.  How in the h-e-double hockey sticks does he accomplish this?  Simple: Clyde’s entire plan is contingent on him being placed in one specific prison and eventually in its solitary confinement cells.  The Titanic-sized gaping hole in the film’s plot, though, is this:  How in the world would Clyde know that he would be placed in that specific prison and later in a specific area of solitary confinement?  How did he know that the judge would put him in the prison that he desired so that he could effectively use that location (through a further unbelievable plot reveal) to completely enact his rancorous end game for revenge?  Since there is no rationale explanation for this, LAW ABIDING CITIZEN devolves into something unforgivably dumb, sloppy, and fragrantly manufactured.  At a point near the end when we finally learn how Clyde did what he did while in prison, you just want to throw something at the screen in pitiful disgust: the film essentially begins to fall down the “let’s insult the audience’s intelligence as much as possible” tree and hits every branch on the way down. 

Bad and disposable efforts like this should not be squandered on its talent, and there is abundant talent on board here:  F. Gary Gray is a reasonably accomplished director (he made the decent ITALIAN JOB remake and the very assured hostage thriller THE NEGOTIATOR); Jamie Foxx is a proven Oscar winner (although films like STEALTH and this film taints his award recognition); Gerard Butler was freak of sword-swinging nature as Leonidas in 300 and had a goofy machismo charm in ROCKNROLLA; and then there is also strong supporting players, like the fantastic Viola Davies (who gave the best cameo performance in recent memory in DOUBT) that is all but regrettably wasted in an excruciatingly small and underwritten part.  Alas, they are all here in pathetic pay check form, which is the only logical reason for them to appear in this illogical and fearsomely wrongheaded thriller.  Yes, there are some truly depraved moments to appease torture porn fundamentalists and Foxx and Butler have a few low rent Clarice/Hannibal Lector standoff moments that are fun (granted, they provide little in the way of tension).   Lamentably, though, LAW ABIDING CITIZEN breaks one of the most unpardonable movie laws: it pathetically and laughably flies in the face of all earth-bound common sense.  

Be a good citizen and avoid this.

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