Director F. Gary Gray, with all of his mustered machismo brutality and combustible set pieces, is back and he has the judicial system in his sights with Law Abiding Citizen. Swooping flyover shots of the William Penn bronze statue sitting atop Philadelphia’s City Hall are filmed with a seemingly discerning eye while judges and prosecutors alike are depicted as flamboyantly assertive and dishonest.
This is an oppressive film, with its industrial color palette, clanging shackles and flood of legal terminology. If you could smell a film, Law Abiding Citizen would smell like a musty rod-iron fence. But wait until the slimy politicians and self-preserving district attorneys start roaming the halls of steel-caged thugs who aren’t any more animalistic and unlawful than the prosecutors who put them there. As they speak, you can even see their corruptness and indecency through the cold, wintry air – that is until they receive a new inmate, Clyde Shelton.
Clyde (Gerard Butler) is a father and a husband who is the victim of a random break-in, which brings about the death of his wife and daughter at the hands of two brutes. The prosecutor in this case, Nick Rice (Jamie Foxx), in an effort to guarantee a conviction, makes a deal with one of the two murderers who is now a cooperating witness and will testify in court against the other. So we have two murderers – one gets the death penalty, one gets off in three years.
Outside the courthouse, in front of a sea of photographers, Nick shakes the witness’ hand in the view of a sheepish and bewildered Clyde, who has just witnessed the injustice of the legal system first-hand. The fact that Nick was unwilling to go to court and get a conviction for both men because of insubstantial evidence, despite it being the absolute truth, makes it all the harder for Clyde to swallow. Fast-forwarding ten years, the film quickly becomes an amoral revenge-kick before switching gears completely (to its credit) into a somewhat rational undressing of the American judicial system through the mind games of the now imprisoned, yet still mystifyingly dangerous Clyde Shelton. “I’ll bring the whole system down on your head”, he says to the wide-eyed and frustrated Nick, “it’s gonna be biblical”.
The fundamental problem with Law Abiding Citizen is that it’s a film that wants to toe the morality line and do it under the guise of a slick package, but it simply doesn’t have what it takes under the hood. Our two protagonists are given bland, lifeless dialogue to just throw back-and-forth while the filmmaking is far too routine to overcome the lack of viable substance and certainty. Compounding matters are the surprisingly flat and underwhelming performances of not only the supporting cast but also the two main stars.
Gerard Butler (300, The Ugly Truth) is just plainly miscast here as an unbelievable portrait of a grieving father/husband-turned-vigilante. He’s too rough and prickly with his lisp and toned-physique – the fact that I never bought him as this “wounded soul” could not be compensated for by button-down shirts and raincoats, much to the filmmakers’ surprise. Jamie Foxx, on the other hand, looks like he needed a warm cup of coffee to the face. Supporting players and familiar faces like Colm Meaney and Bruce McGill are almost too ideal for their roles while female counterparts like Leslie Bibb (Iron Man) as an understudy lawyer to the district attorney and Viola Davis (Doubt) as the no-nonsense Mayor are hopelessly derivative.
I do appreciate what the film is trying to do here, but it’s often too non-committal, meandering and preposterous. When Clyde’s secret, or rather how he does what he does, is revealed, it’s both a letdown and a shot to the film’s already crumbling credibility. When it’s over, we get the feeling that Clyde’s goal could have been obtained through simpler means and spared us the lecture.