The great Mahatma Gandhi, decrying the futility of acts of revenge, once said, ‘An eye for an eye and soon the whole world is blind.” They are sage words that Gerard Butler should have considered before dishing out liberal doses of vigilante justice (or, indeed, accepting the lead role) in F. Gary Gray’s fatalistic fairytale Law Abiding Citizen. One of the more repugnant examples of Hollywood’s cheap-thrill approach to violence, its voyeuristic brutality is matched only by its innate stupidity.
Butler is Clyde Shelton, an average Joe who saw his wife and daughter murdered by two thrill-killing home intruders, Clarence Darby (a cartoonishly-bad Christian Stolte) and his offsider Rupert Aames (Josh Stewart). Though the culprits are caught, justice is short-lived when Darby cuts a deal with slick D.A. Nick Price (Jamie Foxx, phoning in his ‘unruffable cool’ persona) and sends Rupert to the needle in exchange for a reduced sentence.
But Shelton will not rest until he wreaks vengeance and – initiating a series of coincidences that are the first signs that logic will play no part in the story – paralyses Darby with the poison of a Caribbean puffer fish (readily available in wintry Philadelphia, apparently). Shelton straps Darby to a gurney in an abandoned warehouse and proceeds to dismember the fully-conscious villain, before a video camera. His giddyingly-implausible plan is to enact revenge against the District Attorney who cut the deal, the legal system that allows the virtuous to die in vain, and a society that values the rights of the criminal over the memory of the victim.
Gray, who has made silk-purse films out of sow-ear storylines in the past (Set It Off, 1995; The Negotiator, 1996; The Italian Job, 2003), has no trouble framing the set-ups and capturing the ugliness of the darker moments of this perpetually icky film (the Shelton family murder, which occurs 45 seconds into the film, is plain sick; the video of Darby’s butchering, sent to Price’s home and viewed by his teenage daughter and wife, is revolting). But there is no urgency to the drama of as Shelton’s revenge scenario – Gray lets the grieving anti-hero devolve into a straightforward villain, no more believable and far less scary than your standard slasher-movie psycho. Law Abiding Citizen quickly descends into a clichéd, guess-the-support-star-to die-next parade until Gray and screenwriter Kurt Wimmer (who underperforms again here after such high-profile duds as Sphere, 1998; Equilibrium, 2002; The Recruit, 2003; and Ultraviolet, 2004) decide it’s time to go home, and wrap things up in one of the most ridiculous movie finales you will ever see.
In all fairness, the O.T.T. nature of the climax is in keeping with the sublimely stupid plot developments and wonderfully wacky revenge devices employed throughout the narrative. The film reaches its unintentionally hilarious zenith with Shelton’s deployment of a rocket-launching, machine gun-packing robotic remote unit – at the funeral service of the half-dozen assistant DAs he has just killed! Lurking through the headstones completely unnoticed, despite the presence of police and federal officials by the dozens, the robo-assassin achieves Shelton’s desired homicidal effect, but its true destructive power is on the film’s credibility.
The ‘Oscar Curse’ is slowly tightening its grip around the throat of Jamie Foxx’s career. Ever since his star-making turn in Taylor Hackford’s Ray (2004), he has played good roles in films nobody saw (The Kingdom, 2007; The Soloist, 2009), small roles in films made better by others (Jarhead, 2005; Dreamgirls, 2006) or lead roles in notable stinkers (Stealth, 2005; Miami Vice, 2006). Law Abiding Citizen is his worse film yet, though its fatal flaws are not entirely his fault.
Gerard Butler’s Shelton makes his turn as King Leonidas in Zack Snyder’s 300 (2006) look like a lesson in subtle restraint. Twitching, yelling, crying, killing, tunnelling (yes…tunnelling) – Butler, mumbling a wavering faux-American accent, plays every scene to the back row. It’s as if every actor was instructed to chew as much scenery as possible, in the hope that the din of earnest, cheesy line readings will help drown out the film’s inanity. It doesn’t.
Gray touches on parallels between Price and Shelton – the DA has a young daughter too, but affords more time to his career – but little is made of the comparison. Foxx’s and Butler’s interview room jousting, the verbal power-playing between the light and dark forces of the alpha-male are usually the reason stars like these choose genre roles like this (think Silence of the Lambs’ Hannibal Lecter and Clarice Starling as the perfect example). Here, it’s a sub-standard Law & Order episode.
As with Jodie Foster’s recent abomination The Brave One (2007), one is left with a worrying feeling that the filmmakers want to tout vigilantism as an option if the system lets the individual down. Even the title implies that Shelton, driven to extremes by fate and abandoned by justice, is just like the rest of us – a law-abiding citizen. The film’s failure as a thriller is there for all to see; its potency as a Death Wish-style rallying of arms-bearing Right-wing ideologies is dangerously unmeasurable.