REVIEW: Law Abiding Citizen [2009]

“You can’t fight fate”

Another one is crossed off Hollywood’s famed ‘black list’—unproduced scripts so good they just have to be made. I had read an article about Kurt Wimmer’s Law Abiding Citizen and how Gerard Butler took it upon himself to help step save it from production hell, watching as Jamie Foxx signed on to co-star and F. Gary Gray to direct. Supposedly it took two years to finally go in front of cameras, so I wonder how long before that it was actually conceived and written. There are a lot of parallels to the 2007 film Fracture, from the criminal we in the audience know is guilty deciding to defend himself to the hot-shot prosecutor finding how his over-inflated—if not deservedly so—ego can bring him down. Whereas that one stayed pretty taut and psychological in its thrills, Wimmer keeps the action he’s known for in Citizen, (Will he ever match the excellent Equilibrium?), keeping it intelligent while also catering to a more MTV-generation viewer, adding a little spice to the intricacies of the mind. And that is where the film really excels; you won’t be bored while watching and even if so much is anticipated and guessed correctly very early, the follow through to those solutions is still worth a gander.

The story kicks off with Clyde Shelton at home with his wife and daughter, a ‘tinkerer’ that has made some money and therefore ripe for burglary. In comes Darby and Ames, stabbing Shelton in the abdomen and rendering him helpless as they rape and murder the two women in front of him. It should be an open and closed case, but lawyer Nick Rice decides to take a plea deal as Darby—the one who did the killing—agreed to finger Ames and only get about five years in prison himself. The decision was made against Shelton’s wishes, rationalized with the idea that getting some justice is better than the possibility of getting none. So, instead of going the distance for Shelton and his family, Rice goes for the guaranteed win on his record while the widower goes home to wallow in his pain and sorrows. Flash-forward ten years and the patsy Ames is finally being executed, only Shelton decides to throw a wrench in the system by dealing his own brand of pain and vengeance to those involved in the botched court case. This father with nothing to lose has worked a decade to not only seek justice, but to bring down the establishment that allowed a killer’s freedom to be acceptable.

Story has it that Butler always eyed part of Assistant DA Rice when developing the project, yet changed his mind before production began. He very smartly realized how much more interesting Shelton was—his interior motivations, the secrets of his life that have been hidden so well, and the emotional disconnect needed to be a cold-blooded killer as a way to honor the death of his family—and asked Foxx if he’d be okay with the switch. I’m trying to wrap my head around these two flip-flopped and I am seeing a film that just would not work as well. I know Butler has been doing more and more low-key roles that keep him clear of the ass-kicking he’s known for, (people forget that this guy played and sang in the Phantom of the Opera), but he is totally the grieving father willing to do whatever is necessary. Something about Foxx’s recent spate of good-guy portrayals makes him a perfect match for the more logical Rice, so kudos to Butler on making that decision; it could possibly have been his best move as producer.

I don’t say that because the film is otherwise bad; I actually really enjoyed the excitement and intrigue going on. The number one suspect and admitted guilty party is stuck behind bars, yet everyone that had a hand—no matter how small—in letting his wife and daughter’s killer go free is blowing up, being shot by cell phones, and being buried alive. The film becomes a race to stop the bleeding, even though I secretly hoped that somehow the whole thing would come crumbling down a la Fight Club. But this is not an indie feature without a big studio breathing down its back, so some resolution needs to be created in order to appease those like me with bloodlust and those with a slightly less strong constitution, hoping Foxx and company can save the day from this insane madman. And with a great supporting cast consisting of Colm Meaney, Bruce McGill, Leslie Bibb, and Michael Irby, you also start to become conflicted on whether you want the familiar faces to bite the dust or live to fight another day.

But that is exactly why Law Abiding Citizen succeeds in its goal to keep you invested. The good guys and the bad aren’t clear cut; everyone has some guilt to answer for as well as some latitude to cross that line of decency for a brand of justice that may not be so savory when put up against the law book. Butler’s only misstep is his continued attempts to hide that Scottish accent; I still maintain that it’d be less obtrusive to just use it than trying so hard and failing to render it invisible. His cold, steely stare and absolute confidence in what he is doing is perfect, helping to make those few moments of teary emotion at the hands of remembering his daughter authentic. You can see how much he wants Foxx’s Rice to believe in what he is doing, to take a stand and perhaps join his side—a line early on between the men, without the constraints of the job, showing Foxx praise him for butchering Darby lays the inkling that he might be swayed. No matter how similar they may be, though, their moral ceiling isn’t quite at the same level for which price is too high for good to prevail. It is the rapport between these two highly intuitive men that allows all the missteps and contrivances of the script to be acceptable. Sometimes a good time at the movies is all a film needs to be considered a winner.

Law Abiding Citizen 7/10 | ★ ★ ★

[1] Gerard Butler stars in Overture Films LAW ABIDING CITIZEN Photo By John Baer © 2009 LAC Films LLC. All rights reserved.
[2] (Left to right.) Bruce McGill, Leslie Bibb, and Jamie Foxx star in Overture Films LAW ABIDING CITIZEN Photo By John Baer © 2009 LAC Films LLC. All rights reserved.


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