Law Abiding Citizen (2009) Movie Review

“Law Abiding Citizen” posits that age-old question: if the system failed you, and you had the wherewithal to make it happen, would you blow it all up and start over? Okay, so the question doesn’t quite go like that, but it’s close enough. In the case of Kurt Wimmer’s “Citizen”, the answer seems to be: Hell Yeah. And then some.

The film stars Gerard Butler as Clyde Shelton, one of those mild-mannered family man types who one day realizes there are bad guys out there when two criminal lowlifes break into his home and proceed to brutalize, rape, and then kill his wife and daughter. Clyde survives to see the killers caught, only to witness the more reprehensible half of the criminal pair get off with a light sentence thanks to a plea deal with young wheeling and dealing D.A. Nick Rice (Jamie Foxx). Clyde is, understandably, perturbed. Ten years later, Clyde returns on the scene and exacts brutal revenge on the criminals. He’s easily captured, but that’s when the fun really begins. For you see, Clyde has a plan, and it involves Nick Rice and the Philadelphia justice system. And lots and lots of explosives.

Written by Kurt Wimmer (“Equilibrium”), “Law Abiding Citizen” is one manipulative little movie. From the word go, Wimmer puts us on Clyde’s side, and for much of the film we are rooting him on as he outwits the increasingly frustrated authorities while killing everyone he deems responsible for the sins of the past, all from the comfort of his prison cell. Obviously it doesn’t help his cause that the slickly named Nick Rice is so slick he comes across more like a pimp than a D.A., ignores his family, and seems only concern about the next promotion. So when the script asks us to side with Clyde, we’re there with bells on. Of course, as Clyde’s revenge scheme gets progressively more deadly and involves more and more innocents, we can’t help but wonder if we’re on the right side here, after all.

“Law Abiding Citizen” is directed by F. Gary Gray, who knows a thing or two about blowing shit up in the pursuit of vengeance, having previously directed “The Italian Job” and “A Man Apart” with Vin Diesel, a film that bears some resemblance to “Citizen”, though was definitely more brawn than brains. “Citizen” makes great use of its Hollywood budget, and Gray’s sure direction might have been enough even if the script was less than stellar. Fortunately Wimmer has hit on a great idea, and Gray perfectly executes it onscreen. While there are no real signature action set pieces, the movie does bring the pain at a very balanced level throughout. You won’t be bored, and you’ll always be wondering what Clyde’s got up his sleeve.

While Jamie Foxx and Gerard Butler are equally featured on the marquee, make no mistake about it, “Law Abiding Citizen” lives and dies on the shoulder of Butler. The “300” star is more than up to the task, and there are some great moments where Clyde Shelton switches from family man to cold-blooded killing machine before our eyes, and then back again. And because Clyde never goes completely Lecter, it helps to remind us that, underneath all that rage, plotting, and killing is a man who lost everything. Yeah, this guy is a killer, and yeah, he seems to be going a tad overboard with each new threat, but there is something about Clyde as played by Butler that makes us give him the benefit of the doubt, right to the very end.

Despite having almost as much, if not more screentime than Butler, Foxx is really in more of a supporting role, and that’s to be expected when the villain of the movie gets to say all the cool lines and do all the cool things. Now Foxx knows how Jodie Foster felt in “Silence of the Lambs”. The film features a couple of nice supporting turns, including Leslie Bibb as a young, idealistic D.A. who Nick takes under his wing, but who comes to question the way they operate as Clyde’s vengeance gets progressively more and more, as he promised, “biblical” in scope. Bruce McGill is effective as Nick’s mentor, while Colm Meaney and Michael Irby are your standard movie cops, meaning they don’t do a whole lot except provide the occasional exposition.

“Law Abiding Citizen” certainly appeals to our baser instincts. If our lives were destroyed by the actions of two criminals, would we have the guts to take revenge when the system fails to punish those criminals? Probably not, unless we were Clyde Shelton, who is a tad smarter than the average bear and happens to have a couple of millions stashed away for just such an occasion. “Law Abiding Citizen” is an entertaining jaunt into the world of pure fantasy, where if you’re smart and dedicated and righteous enough, you can change the system, even if you have to shoot, slice, and blow up everyone in the city to do it. This is one of those cases where rooting for the bad guy has never felt so cathartic.

F. Gary Gray (director) / Kurt Wimmer (screenplay)
CAST: Jamie Foxx … Nick Rice
Gerard Butler … Clyde Shelton
Colm Meaney … Detective Dunnigan
Bruce McGill … Jonas Cantrell
Leslie Bibb … Sarah Lowell
Michael Irby … Detective Garza
Gregory Itzin … Warden Iger
Regina Hall … Kelly Rice

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