by Mel Valentin
Vigilante revenge fantasies have been a Hollywood staple, at least in their urban, non-Western iteration for close to four decades, since Michael Winner’s (and Charles Bronson’s) "Death Wish" thirty-five years ago. Recent iterations include the vigilante-as-feminist-avenger thriller "The Brave One" and the father-avenger thriller "Taken" (a surprise box-office hit earlier this year). "Law Abiding Citizen," an absurd, muddled crime-thriller directed by F. Gary Gray ("Be Cool,"" "A Man Apart," "The Italian Job," "The Negotiator," "Set It Off," "Friday") and written by Kurt Wimmer ("Street Kings," "Ultraviolet," "The Recruit," "Equilibrium," "The Thomas Crown Affair"), is next up, mixing elements of R-rated vigilante revenge fantasies the "Saw" franchise’s serial killer, Jigsaw (or if you want to class it up, "Silence of the Lambs’" Hannibal Lector).Law Abiding Citizen opens with Clyde Shelton’s (Gerard Butler) last idyllic day. Violent thieves break into his home in broad daylight, subdue and tie him up, do the same to his wife, and murder both his wife and young daughter. The Philadelphia police catch the two men, Clarence Darby (Christian Stolte) and Rupert Ames (Josh Stewart), but bungled evidence gathering leaves Nick Rice (Jamie Foxx), an ambitious state prosecutor willing to make a deal, charge Darby with a lesser offense in exchange for testimony against Ames. Ames gets the death penalty, but Darby gets a minimal sentence. A distraught, angry Shelton refuses to accept the different sentences for Darby and Ames, blames the deal-making Rice and, by extension, a criminal justice system that lets murderers go after only a few years.
"If Jigsaw and Hannibal Lector had offspring, it'd look a lot like..."
Ten years later, Rice has risen through the prosecutorial ranks to become the number 2 prosecutor under Philadelphia D.A. (and longtime mentor) Jonas Cantrell (Bruce McGill). Outside of his trusted assistant D.A., Sarah Lowell (Leslie Bibb), Rice seems to have few friends. At home, he’s a distracted husband to Kelly (Regina Hall) and an inattentive father to the ten-year old Denise (Emerald-Angel Young). It’s then that Shelton puts his elaborate, ten-years-in-the-making plan into action, letting himself get caught (an opportunity for a gratuitous, if apparently obligatory shots of a semi-naked or naked Butler), manipulating Rice from his Silence of the Lambs-inspired dungeon cell and threatening Rice’s colleagues, his family, and, eventually, the mayor (Viola Davis) of Philadelphia with violence. Since he’s only a prosecutor and not an investigator (and doesn’t carry a gun), Rice gets an assist from two of Philadelphia’s finest police detectives, Dunnigan (Colm Meaney) and Garza (Michael Irby).
Law Abiding Citizen might be the title and it’s also a clunky line of dialogue uttered by Shelton at his bail hearing, but he’s far from an ordinary citizen (he’s no longer “law abiding” by the time he utters that line of dialogue). Shelton has unique talents and skills (unsurprising black-ops clichés apply here), a not-quite-evil mastermind who, though initially sympathetic, becomes less sympathetic as he moves from targeting the men who murdered his family to the representatives of the criminal justice system (e.g., prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges). Shelton oddly forgets to include the police officers and crime scene technicians who botched the case against his family’s murderers. Then again, maybe Shelton can forgive some trespasses (he uses the word “biblical” to describe his plans in a scene featured in the TV ads and trailers).
Any claims that Law Abiding Citizen is any way, shape, or form a critique of the criminal justice system are completely unjustified, not to mention laughable. By the end of Law Abiding Citizen, our sympathies are expected to shift to Rice, an imperfect man (he’s ambitious, arrogant, stubborn) that represents an imperfect system. Shelton is the once-noble, now-sociopathic mastermind, interested less in revenge than in violently changing, if not eradicating, an imperfect system operated by imperfect men and women. Outside of eliminating plea-bargaining, a necessary evil in our criminal justice system, Shelton doesn’t offer any other ideas, but he’s willing to use his lethal talents and skills to that end.The MPAA rated "Law Abiding Citizen" R for “strong bloody brutal violence, and pervasive language,” but Gary and his producers didn’t have the courage of their (low) convictions to use the R-rating to full advantage. Gray cuts away during a particularly gruesome torture scene, a scene "Saw’s" producers would have exploited without thinking twice (and have across six entries and positive box-office returns). Compared to with its predecessors, "Law Abiding Citizen" is a less clever, more restrained version of a "]Saw" entry or a down-market entry in the now-dormant “Hannibal Lector” series.
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originally posted: 10/16/09 05:00:40