F. Gary Gray’s no-frills thriller Law Abiding Citizen serves up a standard premise (crime victim seeks vigilante justice), one crackerjack performance (Gerard Butler as the aggrieved avenger), and some blood-soaked action. It’s hardly going to rewrite the genre rulebook, but there’s enough here to remind audiences of just how fun this kind of film can be.
Clyde Shelton (Butler) is a mysterious man who loses his family to a pair of violent home invaders. Ten years later, one of these maniacs is on Death Row, and the other has been released after cutting a deal with egomaniacal DA Nick Rice (Jamie Foxx). When the scheduled execution goes haywire and the accomplice turns up in a warehouse, chopped up into 28 different pieces, all eyes point to Shelton. Sure enough, he did it and will confess, but only if Rice agrees to his increasingly bizarre terms. Soon, more participants in the case turn up dead. A little investigation reveals Shelton may not be who he claims to be. More importantly, he may not stop until he has brought the entire justice system down — Rice and his family included.
Law Abiding Citizen is a slick cat and mouse thriller where occasional splashes of gore substitute for any emotional depth or narrative context. It’s the kind of movie where a main character insults a judge’s sexual proclivities and the audience breaks out in spontaneous applause.There is no getting around the fact that Kurt Wimmer’s script wants us to empathize with Shelton. The opening crime is so heinous, the ensuing perversion of justice at the trial so random (we get the impression it was done to save Rice’s ego — and his conviction record), and Shelton’s reaction so whip-smart, that when the movie tries to shift our sympathies towards Rice, it doesn’t work. Even as his own reactions become more and more extreme and violent, we constantly stay with Shelton’s side of the story.
This makes the ending a little tenuous, since we’ve been rooting for what is essentially the ‘bad guy’ for the last 90 minutes. Director Gray does his best to walk both sides of the moral fence, giving us reasons to both like and loathe what Butler and Foxx are doing. They are equally matched as ethical guides, each one excelling at what they were trained to do, each one rationalizing the often deadly consequences of their work. Of course, we are meant to see Foxx as the more upfront crook, encompassing every cliché ever written about the backroom deal-making lawyer. But Butler just blows his Oscar-winning co-star out of the water, his charisma and animal magnetism overcoming Foxx’s consistent aloofness.
But the real attraction here is the violence and the visceral thrill of gruesome revenge, enough to satisfy even the most craven crowd member’s bloodlust. Like Dirty Harry or Death Wish taken to high tech extremes, Law Abiding Citizen accomplishes what it sets out to do. It’s no masterpiece, but there’s always something to be said for efficiency and effectiveness.