When Peter Finch got fed up with the system in Network, he took his anger to the TV airwaves and yelled, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not gonna take this anymore!” When Gerard Butler gets fed up with the system in Law Abiding Citizen, he growls, “I’m gonna bring the whole diseased, corrupt temple down on your head,” then exacts the sort of revenge that makes Charles Bronson look like a whiny little mama’s boy.
First Clyde (Butler) goes all Saw on the man who broke into his home and stabbed his wife and daughter to death. And when the perp runs out of limbs to sever, Butler trains his sights on the system that set the murderer free after a couple of years in prison. But there’s no fun in getting even this time. Unlike most Death Wish fantasies, the payback in Law Abiding Citizen doesn’t have a cathartic kick, because the revenge is so extreme it’s horrifying, and because Clyde won’t be satisfied until everyone in Philadelphia has paid a share of the toll.
Chief on his list is Nick (Jamie Foxx), the district attorney who negotiated a deal for the criminal in order to maintain his near-flawless conviction record. Law Abiding Citizen, which was written by Kurt Wimmer and directed by F. Gary Gray, argues that a justice system in which people do their job with an eye on how it best serves them is doomed to fail, whether by sending the wrong people to Death Row or setting the guilty free before the blood on their hands has dried.
What’s unusual about the movie, at least for a big-budget mainstream Hollywood picture, is how long the story sustains its moral dubiousness. Can you really blame Clyde, emotionally wounded beyond repair, for venting his biblical wrath on a broken system? Is Nick to be held accountable for cutting a deal under the circumstances, which might have otherwise seen the suspects walk away scot-free?
Law Abiding Citizen is best while making you contemplate those questions. When Nick asks, “You think your wife and daughter would feel good about you killing in their name?” Clyde shoots back, “My wife and daughter can’t feel anything: They’re dead.” Tell me that exchange doesn’t make you feel like tuning in to Rush Limbaugh, at least for a little while.
The movie is less effective when Nick starts playing Sherlock Holmes to figure out how Clyde is able to keep killing people in highly ingenious manner after he’s sitting in a prison cell. Unfortunately, the film runs into the dreaded Third Act Troubles: Never all that plausible to begin with, the plot becomes completely untethered from reality. The filmmakers also tip their hand as to whose side they’re really on, and you start to realize just how thinly written all the characters are. Even the gifted Foxx is unable to bring much life to his role. Soon, you just want the thing to end so you can go home.
At least Law Abiding Citizen doesn’t stoke the viewer’s bloodlust. Instead, the film flings that bloodlust back in your face. At the big climax, when yet another gigantic explosion occurs, director Gray drains the sound out of the movie, so the bang arrives with a melancholic whoosh. Even the film itself seems to be exhausted by the violence human beings are constantly inflicting on each other.
Whichever side of the eye-for-an-eye argument you happen to be on, though, Law Abiding Citizen offers a piece of advice everyone can agree on: When a lawyer looks you in the eye and asks, “Do you trust me?” your answer should be — now and forever — “No.”
Cast: Jamie Foxx, Gerard Butler, Colm Meany, Bruce McGill, Leslie Bibb, Michael Irby, Regina Hall, Viola Davis.
Director: F. Gary Gray.
Screenwriter: Kurt Wimmer.
Producers: Gerard Butler, Lucas Foster, Mark Gill.
An Overture Films release. Running time: 105 minutes. Vulgar language, violence, gore, adult themes. Playing at area theaters.