An extreme view, to be sure, but one that many law abiding citizens share across the country. One also that is explored in Gary F Gray’s latest movie. Gray has explored similar themes before. His 1995 movie The Negotiator told the story of a cop who was told about a conspiracy involving several of his colleagues, and was subsequently framed in an attempt to discredit him, and hide the truth. He had no choice but to take the law into his own hands.
In Law Abiding Citizen, another man feels compelled to do the same. Gerard Butler is Clyde Shelton. A mild mannered family man, his world is turned upside down when he is attacked, and his wife and daughter murdered during a random home invasion. Shelton is devastated. The perpetrators are caught, but when the court case comes around the district attorney Nick Rice (Jamie Foxx) doesn’t want to take it to trial. Considering Shelton’s testimony to be useless, due to his blacking out during the attack, Rice doesn’t want to lose the case and risk the blot on his outstanding prosecution record. Instead, he makes a plea bargain with one of the defendants, who gives up his partner in return for immunity. Shelton is devastated that justice has not been served, whilst Foxx considers it a job well done.
Ten years later, the convicted attacker is due for execution via lethal injection. Someone however intervenes, and ensures the execution is as painful as possible. Then the defendant who was given immunity is found dead, having been tortured. Shelton is arrested, and goes willingly. He wants to make some deals of his own with the DA, and with ten years planning behind him aims to make the stakes as high as possible. Despite being safely under lock and key, Shelton begins to wreak revenge on the justice system, and the legal wranglers he holds responsible for the injustice he suffered all those years ago.
There’s a deep message at the heart of Law Abiding Citizen, about how today’s legal system is flawed, that the people with the legal power in America don’t necessarily put the interests of the victims above their own, and asks how criminals known to be guilty are allowed freedom to re-offend over and over again. Unfortunately, this message is very well hidden. There’s one scene, set in the courtroom, where Gerard Butler’s character uses the flawed bail system to successfully demonstrate how stupid the legal system really is.
This one scene has more resonance, and intelligent argument, than the rest of the movie altogether. What is actually on offer is trash. Entertaining trash to be sure, but trash nonetheless. The concept of the movie isn’t intrinsically flawed, and if the methods used by Shelton to strike vengeance on the legal system and lay bare the problems that lie within had been cleverly written, it could have been great.
Instead, the plot goes from silly, to ridiculous, to downright ludicrous. Character motivations are sketchy, with some completely nonsensical methods employed by both Shelton and the DA to reach their goals. We don’t find out how the protagonist has set up the various traps and events until the climax, and when we do it feels like a cop out.
The frankly dumb plot elements aren’t helped by some lousy acting. Butler shows two facial expressions, distraught and smug, with very little nuance in-between. Worse, though, is Academy Award winner Foxx, who really should know better. Seemingly on autopilot for the duration of the movie, he looks like an actor out for a paycheck.
Some of the shock violent moments are entertaining in their over the top, cartoonish way, and there are some genuine laugh out loud moments. It’s not an unwatchable movie, and falls into that ‘so bad it’s good’ category. I really liked The Negotiator, but Gray clearly had a weaker script to work with this time around. Furthermore, Foxx and Butler are no Samuel L. Jackson and Kevin Spacey.
Watch Law Abiding Citizen by all means, but wait for the DVD, grab some friends and some beer, and have a laugh with it. Oh, and check your IQ, and any sense of logic, at the door.
Law Abiding Citizen opens in the UK this Friday 27th November, and is at theatres nationwide in the US now.
Bazmann – You can now follow me on Twitter at www.twitter.com/baz_mann