Movie Review: 'Law Abiding Citizen': Another Ugly Revenge Fantasy Film

By Dan Kois
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, October 16, 2009; 4:10 PM

A preposterous exercise in high-minded brutality, "Law Abiding Citizen" tries to pass itself off as a dialectic on justice betrayed, but instead plays like a snuff film with our nation's legal system as the victim.

It begins with a brutal rape and double murder by baseball bat-wielding thugs. Ten years later (in the movie, although you may also feel that much time has passed in the theater), Clyde Shelton (Gerard Butler), the man whose wife and daughter were slain, exacts revenge on the paroled killer, his accomplice and every government official in the city of Philadelphia.

"Now they get to watch you suffer," a saw-wielding Clyde growls to a terrified, strapped-down criminal, Darby (Christian Stolte), pointing to a photo of his dead family. That's the defining characteristic of "Law Abiding Citizen": It wants to watch people suffer. The deaths in "Law Abiding Citizen" are designed for a target audience that wants to see bad guys get theirs, as horribly as possible.

A movie devoted to baroque revenge would be, on its own terms, acceptable; what makes "Law Abiding Citizen" so risible is its humorless conviction that it's got Big Ideas at its core. Director F. Gary Gray seems convinced he's making something profound; among his misguided auteurist decisions is one particularly pointless juxtaposition of a gruesomely botched lethal injection with a child's cello recital. And in scene after tedious scene, Clyde and Nick Rice (Jamie Foxx), the district attorney who let a killer plea-bargain his way off Death Row, debate justice and fate in a grandiose interrogation cage under high, vaulted ceilings.

For Clyde doesn't just want revenge, oh no. He plans to bring the justice system to its knees, and targets the judge, attorneys and even the poor office assistants who failed him 10 years before.

Fortuitously, Clyde used to work as a remote-target assassin for a government black-ops outfit, so even as he sits in prison it's child's play for him to pick off the residents of the Philly courthouse one by one, using exploding cellphones and remote-controlled rocket launchers.

Audiences turned off by the vitriolic tone of recent anti-government sentiment might find the release of a film about the systematic assassination of government officials in questionable taste. One day, some director will make a great movie about the failures of the American justice system, but I'm pretty sure that movie won't include the line, "Feel that? It's a rare poison, isolated from the liver of a Caribbean puffer fish."

Foxx is fine in "Law Abiding Citizen." You know, he jabbers, he preens, he threatens Clyde with cold eyes, he grins, he does his Jamie Foxx thing. Butler gives his all as the victim-turned-tormenter, but his wide eyes and stubble do most of his acting for him. Blink and you'll miss poor Viola Davis, one of the great actors of her generation, as Philly's tough-talking mayor. It's a threat to that mayor, and to the city's top officials, that Nick must avert in the film's climax.

But future screenwriters of thrillers, take heed: Few scenes carry less dramatic weight than an e-mail ex machina.

Law Abiding Citizen (108 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for bloody, brutal violence and torture; a scene of rape, and pervasive language.

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