Lacking both sense and sensibility, “Law Abiding Citizen” tries to be a man-against-the-system drama, but the movie can’t decide whether the audience is supposed to root for the man, the system, both or neither.
Taking leaps of logic that tempt vertigo, the movie remains admittedly entertaining, mainly because it’s so shamelessly ridiculous that you can’t believe an Oscar-winning actor (Jamie Foxx) can get through this thing with a straight face.
We begin in the cozy home of Clyde Shelton (Gerard Butler), who appears to be your basic devoted husband and dad. (Note that he begins the movie soldering microchips — that’s going to come up again later.) Two brutal thugs invade this happy household, tie up Clyde and then brutally murder his wife and daughter right in front of him.
Despite the fact that Clyde was an eyewitness, the judicial system mucks up the case (there’s some quick dialogue about DNA something-blah-blah-something). Nick Rice (Foxx), a rising young hotshot in the district attorney’s office, doesn’t want to mess up his 96 percent success record with an unsuccessful trial, so he cuts a deal to give one of the killers a lesser sentence for testifying against the other, who gets the death penalty. Clyde is distraught, but Nick convinces him that nothing can be done.
Cut to 10 years later when the execution is finally taking place, and someone has tampered with the lethal injection to make it, shall we say, cruel and unusual. The other killer then gets cleverly kidnapped by Clyde and driven to an abandoned warehouse, where he’s brutally tortured to death. The cops come for Clyde, who goes willingly (and nakedly), but then he begins playing cat-and-mouse games with Nick and the rest of the legal system.
There’s no solid evidence linking Clyde to the crime, and the incarcerated Clyde has a few more cards to play, from the kidnapping of the killers’ criminal attorney to the booby-trapping of various cars and cell phones belonging to people involved in trying the original case. As things blow up right and left, Nick tries to figure out how Clyde is waging a war on the district attorney’s office from behind bars — especially since the last ones on Clyde’s list seem to be Nick’s wife and young daughter.
Director F. Gary Gray (“The Italian Job,” “Set It Off”) gets points for some adrenaline-packed action sequences and explosions, as well as for casting Viola Davis (“Doubt”) as the exceedingly unamused mayor of Philadelphia. The scenes where she reads Foxx and his boss to filth are practically worth the price of admission.
But then there’s the ridiculous script by Kurt Wimmer (“Street Kings,” “Sphere”), which turns Clyde into an omniscient superman to keep this ridiculous plot afloat. Even worse, the screenplay schizophrenically jumps back and forth on its opinions about its protagonists. First, we’re supposed to feel sorry for Clyde because he’s been wronged by the judicial system. Later, we’re supposed to cheer when Nick says, “F*** his civil liberties!” when breaking into one of Clyde’s properties without a warrant.
Ultimately, “Law Abiding Citizen” breaks every rule of good filmmaking except for one — it’s never boring. And that’s about the best that can be said of it.
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