Review: Law Abiding Citizen
3.5 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund
Moviegoers in and around Philadelphia will likely eat up “Law Abiding Citizen,” a fast-paced maniac-versus-the-system thriller that's set in the familiar metropolis, was shot on location, and could even be read as being celebratory of the city. Am I just reading it that way because I hail from a Philadelphia suburb? Perhaps. But I don't believe I've ever seen the City of Brotherly Love as handsomely or as expressly captured as I did in this film (no, not even in 1993's “Philadelphia”). No doubt attempting to emphasize the film's theme of justice (or lack thereof), City Hall, specifically, is painted as an imperial structure of Roman grandiosity, its limestone, granite and marble exterior scanned repeatedly by cinematographer Jonathan Sela with a kind of awestruck respect. Additional segments were filmed at the old Broadmeadows prison (a now-defunct facility in suburban Thornton that was built in the same panopticon style as Eastern State Penitentiary), Del Frisco's Double Eagle Steakhouse is incorporated, and even Mayor Michael Nutter makes a brief cameo in a pivotal scene. If I didn't know better, I'd think the movie was made specifically for Philadelphia audiences.
But what about those millions of viewers who dwell outside of the city and its surrounding areas? What will they make of it? I suspect they'll be highly entertained, though not exactly riveted, as “Law Abiding Citizen” is fine popcorn fare, but it isn't nearly as clever as it thinks it is. Since the man at the helm is superior action director F. Gary Gray (who made films like “Set It Off,” “The Negotiator” and “The Italian Job” far more virtuous than they would have been in less adept hands), the movie is a whoosh of a ride, packed with excitement and hard-edged fun (expect plenty of f-words, explosions, blood and dismemberments). But since much of the action is dependent on the mad genius of an idealistic criminal mastermind, the fact that we can anticipate many of his moves weakens not only the movie's tension, but its already shaky plausibility. It's a classic mistake, really: if the audience can see the twists coming, why can't the other characters? The predictable plotting of Kurt Wimmer's Hollywood-mainstream script is where the film takes the biggest hit, but Gray makes rounding those familiar bases a rather exhilarating blast.
I don't particularly care for Gerard Butler, the Scottish actor who rose to super-stardom after his lead performance in “300” was seen by every geek on the planet, and whose other film credits in 2009 – “The Ugly Truth,” “Gamer” – have been anything but stellar. But Butler is engaging and persuasive as Clyde Shelton, an engineer whose wife and daughter are brutally murdered in front of him by burglar Clarence Darby (Christian Stolte, greasy and gross) in the film's opening scene. Darby and his accomplice (Josh Stewart) are caught; however, the hotshot assistant D.A. on the case, Nick Rice (a superb Jamie Foxx), agrees to a plea bargain whereby Darby will serve a measly five years for testifying against his less-guilty partner, who'll suffer the death penalty. Consumed by grief, Clyde tearfully protests the decision, but Nick resolutely informs him that the deal is done (“some justice is better than no justice at all,” he says). The film then jarringly jumps ahead an entire decade in a flash, and soon shows Clyde taking justice into his own hands by tampering with the accomplice's execution device – to worsen the pain, not to stop the process – and gruesomely murdering Darby. Clyde turns himself in, but he's “just getting warmed up,” and from within prison walls, the “expert planner” and former spy initiates a deadly cat-and-mouse game that threatens the lives of everyone who worked on the case and ultimately holds the city under siege.
Clyde insists his actions aren't motivated by revenge, but by his unswerving belief that the justice system is corrupt beyond repair and needs to be upended. This stimulating notion is where “Law Abiding Citizen” finds its strongest narrative foothold, and it's the closest the movie comes to delivering a message deeper than “buckle up and hold on tight.” It's certainly an efficient means of inspiring audience involvement – challenging viewers' morals and causing them to perhaps question the ways of society. After all, Clyde's methods of seeking justice are beyond extreme, but what man wouldn't want to right the wrongs of a legal system that failed him after his family was slaughtered before his eyes? Right? These are the questions the film asks in obvious, yet resonant ways. There's a great courtroom scene in which Clyde, acting as his own legal counsel, insists that he's not a flight risk and that he should be allowed to post bail since the prosecution has no evidence of his guilt. When the judge (a dry, no-nonsense Annie Corley) agrees with Clyde's statements, he laughs and verbally assaults her for proving his point that killers can go free with scary, remarkable ease. It may just be the predominantly surface-level movie's harshest, truest moment.
Beyond that theme, what we've got is a sleek thriller that, for every eye-roll-prompting element – the predictability, the soon-to-be-dead characters' obligatory parting monologues, Butler's inexplicable nudity (isn't that what “300” was for?), and, yeah, Nutter's silly appearance – offers positives that rectify and satisfy. Usual-suspect side players Colm Meaney, Bruce McGill and Michael Kelly provide strong supporting work, as do the newly-dramatic Regina Hall (free from the “Scary Movie” series) and Oscar nominee Viola Davis (“Doubt”), who, as the city's mayor, boosts her budding career as a professional scene-stealer. The remote gadgets and gizmos that Clyde dreams up to wreak havoc from behind bars are nifty in a “Saw”/ “Final Destination” / how-else-can-we-creatively-kill-people kind of way, and they factor into some impressively-staged sequences. Though awash in those inescapable filter tones of cool blue and gun-metal grey, the photography is excellent – crisp, pristine and fluid, as the camera loops and swoops around the recognizable streets and landmarks. For Philadelphians, “Law Abiding Citizen” is enthusiastically recommended, and for everyone else, only somewhat less so.