Law Abiding Citizen

Law Abiding Citizen


Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

Law Abiding Citizen doesn't know if it wants to be a film where justice triumphs over the system, where the system triumphs over vigilantism, or where some stuff blows up real good. It doesn't really manage any of these, instead flailing its way through a series of ostensible set-pieces until it reaches a conclusion that verges on the nonsensical.

The film's problems start with the script, written by the frustratingly scattershot Kurt Wimmer. He wrote and directed Equilibrium, which was smart, consistent, and entertaining, and he also wrote and directed Ultraviolet, which was not. Here Wimmer's notions for action sequences don't really work, because we don't have here the elegance of gun-kata or the nonsense of "gravity levellers", instead we've got one-sided terrorist atrocities. This isn't The Day Of The Jackal, as there's often no sense that these killings can be prevented. Watching people die in a variety of ways is clearly a genre now, and Law Abiding Citizen clearly owes a debt to the Saw franchise and even Phone Booth, with its focus on what amounts to a sociopathic moral centre.

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As for the situation that starts the film, Wimmer's on shaky ground there, too. Gerard Butler is an engineer-type called Clyde Shelton, who answers the door to a pair of burglars-cum-home-invaders. By the end of the ordeal, his wife and child are dead, and he has been stabbed. Star prosecuter Nick Rice (Jamie Foxx) is chasing his conviction statistics, so agrees to a plea bargain from one of the two. The problem is that it's blatantly wrong, ludicrously so. With the caveat that some "DNA evidence was inadmissable" (strike one for the system), the situation is this: two men, Clarence Darby (Christian Stolte, fresh from Public Enemies) who has a history of violent crimes and his hapless sidekick Rupert Ames (TV crime regular Josh Stewart), enter a house to rob it; two people die.

Even without the DNA to link them to the stabbings, the "blood on the shirt", they're both there. The film is set in Philadelphia, and the state of Pennsylvania uses a "recklessness rule" when it comes to deaths during the commission of a felony: it's a charge of Murder in the 2nd Degree. Whatever the actual legal situation, in the film this relatively clear guideline sees the violent one get a lesser charge in return for testifying against the other, which sees the one who didn't do the killing get the death penalty.

Told by the prosecutor that it's not about what happens, but what you can prove in court, Clyde is encouraged to accept the decision. Clyde sees Nick shake hands (albeit unwillingly) with the villainous Clarence Darby, and then vanishes. Darby did have one advantage, a lawyer of his own, indeed, one who can afford a camel coat and a pinky ring, but how this came to be isn't certain.

Of all the people involved, Ames is probably the least well served by the system, not least in that 10 years of appeals evidence inadmissible for the initial prosecution isn't brought in to exonerate him, nor is he resentenced to life on a retrial (as occured in 118 of 124 cases tracked by the Associate Press). The ACLU don't get involved, nor any of the anti-death penalty campaigns, nor the Bar Association or the ethics committees, or even the press when a prosecutor is chasing a 96 per cent conviction rate. That last figure isn't, apparently, ridiculous, just on the high side, and refers to those found guilty by jury or plea after indictment. It's probably safe to say that Wimmer was over-egging the pudding when it comes to building up his motivating miscarriage of justice, but it should perhaps have come to his notice that Pennsylvania hasn't actually executed someone in a decade.

No matter. Ten years on, the hapless Ames is executed in Hollywood's usual gross misrepresentation of lethal injection. Pennsylvania doesn't use a machine, instead it's syringes into an IV, but that's not cinematic. Nor, it would seem, is it cinematic to check the chemicals actually injected, or the labels on them. So Ames dies an excruciating death, murdered when he is supposed to be executed. It's actually halfway clever, but that's the last of it.

What follows would be a game of cat and mouse except that the cat (Butler) appears to have superpowers and the mouse (the government of the City of Philadelphia) suddenly loses the ability to make any of a long list of decisions that would stop his plot in its tracks. From uncooperative prison wardens who are both petty enough to delay someone's lunch and dim enough to have prisoners being granted special privileges when sharing cells, to police who seem incapable of using any of the various powers granted them under the Patriot Act (or indeed almost any other law) to slow Clyde's machinations. Then there's the Feds, who hired him to kill people they couldn't reach in the War on Terror but don't appear to ask any questions or express any involvement when he's arrested, other than sending a shadowy spy to tell a scary story. It sort of establishes that he's a genius grade assassin, and while the story about how good he is does work it does make it seem ridiculous that the jailed Clyde isn't put under close observation.

You'd also expect the FBI to get involved, maybe the Department of Homeland Security, even the army when someone is killed by a robot with a machine gun. That's not hyperbole. After kidnappings, killings, assassinations, all predicated upon legal interpretations that verge on idiocy, there is a robot with a machine gun. Which is basically the problem with Law Abiding Citizen, that at no point does anyone appear to have looked at the script and said - "enough".

Director F. Gary Gray produced a cult classic in Friday, directed the remake of The Italian Job, and also The Negotiator. That last film, a shouty two-hander with Samuel L Jackson and Kevin Spacey, is pretty close to this one in tone, with a similar mixture of dramatic conversations and nonsensical police decisions. Jamie Foxx is okay, but he's not really stretched in the role. He does look good in a suit though, and seems to wear a different tie in every scene. Gerard Butler can't really be blamed for the nonsense coming out of his mouth, and he delivers some lines with a pretty straight face. He's also got a good line in smug, which is surprisingly important for a character we're meant to identify with. Colm Meaney and Bruce McGill deliver solid turns as detective and District Attorney, and Viola Davis is good as the hard-pressed Mayor. As the Judge in both the original plea-bargain and Clyde's arraignment Annie Corley is poorly served by the the script's requirement that she be an unsympathetic shrew, not least when she is berated for adhering to a system she is sworn to uphold and then sexually insulted until she finds him in contempt.

The film can't make up its mind if it wants the system to be good or evil. Rights are observed, played with, and abrogated, procedures are followed, skirted, and violated, laws are scorned, mocked, and rigorously adhered to. A major plot point involves a treaty with Panama that covers corporate records of property sales. As an action movie it hasn't got much action, as a suspense thriller it hasn't got much suspense, as a legal drama it's got no grounding in fact.

If Law Abiding Citizen actually had a point, it'd be so laboured as to feel like brow-beating. Since it doesn't actually make any sense, it's just annoying. The film can't seem to decide which of Foxx and Butler is meant to be the hero, indeed it's almost as if this is an exercise in creating a film whose characters are all merely antagonists. The hardworking DA isn't able to attend his daughter's cello recitals, which is sufficiently stereotypical as to be laughable, and the vengeful father is the same kind of moral tutor as Hannibal Lektor. There's no dispute that the American legal system has its problems, but that's not really a justification for trying to kill everyone involved in it. One can hardly make a desert and call it street-crime reduction.

Reviewed on: 26 Nov 2009
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Law Abiding Citizen packshot
A man whose family has been murdered seeks revenge on the killers - and on the legal personnel who enabled them to escape justice.
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Director: F Gary Gray

Writer: Kurt Wimmer

Starring: Jamie Foxx, Gerard Butler, Colm Meaney, Bruce McGill, Leslie Bibb, Michael Irby

Year: 2009

Runtime: 109 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: US


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