Law Abiding Citizen is one of those high-budget action flicks that are masterfully done– perfectly edited, beautifully shot, fine performances from everyone, even a great musical score. But in the end, it’s forgettable. Why? It’s all cerebral–clever plot, pitch-perfect timing, “gotcha” surprises–but in the end you don’t care about any of the characters. In fact, the guy you’re supposed to care about–the crime victim whose family was slaughtered–you end up hoping gets wiped out. It’s an odd twist.
It’s Philadelphia, a city rich with magnificent architecture both reminiscent of its colonial days as well as its modern metropolis persona. Clyde Shelton (Gerard Butler) is a small-time inventor, happily married with an adorable young daughter. Two violent punks invade his home, beat him to a pulp and one of them, Darby, brutally murders his wife and daughter as Shelton lies helplessly watching.
The ambitious prosecutor Nick Rice (Jamie Foxx) makes a deal with the punk Darby-if he turns state’s evidence against his partner (who did not commit the murders), Darby will serve a short prison sentence while the other man will be tried and sentenced to death.
Shelton, still catatonic from the loss of his wife and child, is horrified. He doesn’t want a deal made. He wants both criminals prosecuted to the limit of the law. He knows Darby is the murderer–he saw him. But Rice is obsessed with keeping his 96% prosecution rate, and if he doesn’t make the deal with Darby, he runs the risk of a trial that will let both men off. “It’s not what you know,” he explains to Shelton, “it’s what you can prove in court.”
So, we are told, is the truth of our so-called blind justice system. Shelton gets the message. The system is corrupt. He must bring it down. No longer will he live the life of a powerless law abiding citizen.
Flash forward ten years. The prison execution of the other criminal is botched. What was supposed to be a painless death turns into agony with plenty of witnesses. Everyone assumes it was Darby who interfered with the execution chemicals and the police search for him.
But Darby is nowhere to be found. That’s because he’s lying on a slab in an empty warehouse, paralyzed, and being cut into pieces by a buzz saw held by–Shelton. It’s a pretty gruesome torture scene (I closed my eyes.) Yes, the creep deserved every moment of pain and horror, but how do we now feel about the man who wrought such a meticulously planned vengeance?
Shelton surrenders and ends up where he wants to be –in prison. He has spent the past decade laying out an elaborate revenge plan whereby he can kill everyone involved in the trial of his family’s killers–all while he remains behind bars. Great premise and it works to create an enormous amount of suspense and tension as Shelton inevitably works his way up his vengeance chain to kill Nick Rice, the prosecutor who cut the deal. It also makes you sick because there are a lot of innocent people sacrificed along the way, including a young prosecutor with a conscience named Sarah (played compellingly by Leslie Bibb).
At one time, you had great sympathy for Shelton, especially because of the way hunky Gerard Butler pulls at your heart strings. But then you realize he’s just a brainy destruction machine (trained by the federal government no less in an interesting subplot) and you want him stopped. But you already dislike Jamie Foxx’s character Nick Rice, so who’s the good guy now?
Unlike many other action flicks which employ a horde of SWAT teams and screaming sirens, director F. Gary Gray (The Italian Job), elegantly narrows the final act down to just a few men and thereby focuses your attention on the revelation of secrets and the way the characters must stretch to stay alive. The action is fascinating; some of it is the best suspense footage of the year. Alas by this time, even with the grand mythic overtones, you just don’t care because you have no one to root for.
Because of its top-notch action flick elements, if you like such movies, do see Law Abiding Citizen on the big screen, but assuage your wallet by choosing the bargain matinee.