Forget murder and other heinous crimes, the misdeeds in Law Abiding Citizen involve extreme violations of logic and credibility. Far-fetched and grim, this Philadelphia-based thriller becomes increasingly less believable with each passing frame.
Starring Jamie Foxx and Gerard Butler, Law Abiding Citizen tries to take the edge off its exploitative urges by posing lukewarm ethical questions about the nature of guilt and justice. But subtlety is not the strong suit here; director F. Gary Gray makes clear his intentions at the outset when two bat-wielding thugs force their way into the home of an apparently normal family. After he's clubbed and hog-tied, Dad is forced to watch as these miscreants defile everything he holds dear; they rape and kill his wife and then murder his young daughter. Want nuance? Look elsewhere.
If you've seen the trailer for Law Abiding Citizen, you know that Dad will go on a killing rampage. His anger -- which he sees as righteous -- stems from the fact that Nick Rice (Foxx), the assistant district attorney who handled his case, made a deal that sent one of the thugs to the gas chamber but allowed the other to go free after a measly three-year sentence.
Ten years later, Dad -- an engineer by trade -- begins to apply his own brand of justice, a pursuit that includes murder, torture and the use of high explosives. There's no mystery about who's wreaking all this havoc. Almost immediately after his first murder, Butler's Clyde Shelton is arrested and jailed. No, the real mystery revolves around how the imprisoned Clyde orchestrates his reign of terror.
So who's at fault here? The compromising prosecutor who cares at least as much about winning as he does about justice? Or should we blame the husband and father who goes rogue after deciding that the legal system has betrayed him?
For me, the real culprit is a script that's busy stretching plausibility, but still makes time for stomach-turning violence and ginned-up tension. In an abandoned warehouse, Clyde dismembers one of his enemies with a buzz saw, thereby demonstrating that he either knows no mercy or has watched too many horror movies. The script by Kurt Wimmer supplies a half-baked explanation for Clyde's malicious prowess, but like just about everything else in Law Abiding Citizen, it fails to convince.
Foxx, who won an Oscar for playing singer Ray Charles in Ray, scowls a lot, but can't do much with the role. Making use of a twisted smile, Butler puts leering energy into the role of a man intent on exposing the inadequacies of the judicial system. The supporting cast -- Bruce McGill (as the Philadelphia DA); Regina Hall (as Nick's wife); and Colm Meaney (as a detective) -- doesn't have much to do.
Here's the deal: Hannibal Lecter, still the reigning king of movie evil geniuses, relied on sophisticated wit and biting intelligence to unsettle law enforcement. You won't find much of either quality in Law Abiding Citizen. Moreover, the original Death Wish -- another movie that Law Abiding Citizen calls to mind -- exploited rampant fear about urban crime. Law Abiding Citizen connects to nothing except its own pulsating gimmickry.
Oh well, Clyde would have done well to remember a saying I've heard attributed to Lenny Bruce, "In the halls of justice, the only justice is in the halls." A Bruce-style reality check might have saved him -- and us -- a whole lot of trouble.