Law Abiding Citizen ***
Revenge thrillers are pretty common nowadays, so much so that it is a genre that is somewhat lacking in originality, many such films failing to deliver to anything that hasn’t really been seen countless times before. Yet, every now and then, a film comes along with a high concept that just may have the potential to provide something truly fresh. Law Abiding Citizen is such a film. Anyone who follows the news will be extremely aware of the many injustices of the legal system, particularly in the United Kingdom. The number of serious offenders who get released from prison only to commit serious offences again is a perfect demonstration of just how broken the British justice system is. Consequently, there is a distinct appeal to a film about a man who feels failed by the justice system and seeks vengeance against that very system. It may deal with the American rather than the British justice system but the central concept is very poignant nonetheless. There is certainly a lot of potential in the concept but does the film actually live up to this potential? A somewhat negative reaction from critics suggests not but a quite impressive performance at the US box office suggests that moviegoers may not agree with the critics.
Clyde Shelton (Gerard Butler) is a brilliant planner and inventor who lives an ordinary but happy life with his wife and daughter. Everything changes, however, on the night that two robbers invade his Philadelphia home and brutally kill his wife and daughter, and almost kill him. The killers are caught and brought to trial and Clyde thinks that he is going to get justice. But he wasn’t counting on the actions of prosecutor Assistant DA Nick Rice (Jamie Foxx) who makes a deal with one of the killers that will get him a lighter sentence if he testifies against his partner. Clyde doesn’t want Nick to make the deal, but Nick says it is too late and the deal is done. The other killer gets the death penalty. After 10 years, the killer who testified is released from prison, and he soon ends up dead, killed in extremely gruesome fashion. Clyde is arrested and kind of admits to Nick that he did it. This is only the beginning, however. Clyde is put in jail, and he warns Nick that, unless he fixes the broken justice system, he’s going to kill everyone involved in the case one by one. It doesn’t take long for Clyde to make good on his promise as key players are found dead in increasingly gruesome circumstances, despite the fact that Clyde is behind bars. Now Nick must find a way to stop the deadly assassin and end his unstoppable and ingenious reign of terror.
The first thing I will say about Law Abiding Citizen is that it is not a film for the squeamish or faint of heart. Within the first few minutes we are witness to the brutal murder of Clyde’s wife and daughter and this is just one of the instances of brutal violence that is on display, other such scenes being the horrific execution of one of the killers, the torture and dismemberment of the other and the gory murder of a prison inmate. With the exception of the last scene I have mentioned, director F. Gary Gray does at least have the taste to shy away from the gory detail but the violence is almost sickening regardless, and not in a way that is wholly necessary for the purposes of the story. However you take the violence, though, the film is at least strong in other areas. The plot is quite ingenious, even if at times some suspension of disbelief is required, and the core objective of the protagonist (or is it antagonist?) brings with it a message about the nature of justice that many may be able to relate to. There is far more going on beneath the surface than the average revenge thriller and the film genuinely does seem to have something to say. However, the message isn’t put across with the resonance it could have and while we can understand Clyde’s point of view and perhaps even relate to it, there is a fatal flaw in the film that results from the character’s actions. After all, it is hard to sympathize with a character who deliberately kills people we know to be entirely innocent, having seen events from their perspective. This lack of sympathy means that we are extremely conflicted about who to really root for. Clyde is supposed to be righteous in his mission yet his actions are anything but while Nick is kind of painted as the bad guy in proceedings he genuinely comes across as a good person. I suppose it could be said that the film reflects the nature of real life, with characters shades of grey rather than being completely good or completely bad but it would really have helped to have someone who we can root for. Any faults with the characters are down entirely to the way they are written, however, not the quality of the performances. Gerard Butler delivers a powerful performance as a broken man driven to desperate measures in his quest to right the wrongs of the justice system, becoming one of the very things he seems to despise in the process. This really is Butler’s film as while co-star Jamie Foxx is good, his less meaty role gives him a lot less to work with and consequently he fails to stand out in any way. The same is pretty much true of the rest of the cast as well, other notable cast members being Colm Meaney, Bruce McGill, Leslie Bibb, Regina Hall and Christian Stolte. Overall, Law Abiding Citizen is an intense and engaging thriller that is well executed and does make you think as well as entertain you but its moral ambiguity combined with its presentation of extreme violence as entertainment (rather than for any real purpose within the story) means that where it could have achieved greatness it rather settles for just being decent.
Review by Robert Mann BA (Hons)
© BRWC 2010.
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