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Law Abiding Citizen
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Dick Cheney's Film Of The Year"
1 stars

There are any number of ways to describe the new super-violent thriller “Law-Abiding Citizen” in a shorthand manner that more or less sums up everything that it has to offer. One could claim that it is like “Death Wish II” sans the whimsy, for example. Then again, it could just as easily be described as being nothing more than “Saw” with lawyers. If someone wanted to let their politics fly free as well, they might suggest that it could one day be considered one of the final vestiges of Dick Cheney’s America. I thought about using all of those to kick off my review (and now that I think of it, I just did) and yet, I decided not to because while each one is startlingly accurate, none of them quite managed to fully sum up my particular feelings. Finally, after much internal wrestling (some of that no doubt brought upon by the fast-food taco that was my ill-advised choice as a post-screening snack), I think that I have finally hit upon the phrase that perfectly summaries my thoughts and here goes: “Law-Abiding Citizen” is a smug, stupid, ridiculous, ham-fisted and morally and ethically reprehensible example of the crypto-fascist and ridiculously reactionary revenge genre that somehow manages to give such things a bad name. Sure, it may not exactly fall trippingly off the tongue but other than that, I think that it pretty much gets the job done.

Gerard Butler stars as Clyde Shelton, an adorable family man in Philadelphia whose adorable family life is irrevocably shattered less than two minutes into the movie when his home is invaded by a couple of vicious thugs, one of who brutally slaughters his adorable wife and adorable young daughter before his eyes. The two are arrested but thanks to a bunch of legal loopholes of the kind usually found only in the opening scenes of films of this type, the case is determined to be too shaky to take to trial and so assistant D.A. Nick Rice (Jamie Foxx) cuts a deal with one of the thugs (the one who actually did the slaughtering, no less) that sends his partner to Death Row while he serves only five years for some reduced charge along the lines of wearing white after Labor Day. Naturally, Clyde thinks that stinks and so would the entire city under normal circumstances but in this case, nobody else seems to notice or care and by the time that the story picks up again 10 years later, Nick’s star has rising high enough so that he is presumed to be a shoo-in to eventually be named district attorney. Things change, however, when Clyde re-emerges in order to murder the patsy while he is in the process of being executed (don’t ask) and lures the other into a trap that allows him to paralyze the guy before completely dismembering him in an incident that he films and sends a copy of to Nick’s home--pity the poor young daughter who pops it in expecting to see a video of her cello recital (one that Dad naturally missed because of his career) and winds up experiencing something even more painful.

Clyde is quickly arrested but then begins doing some very strange things. He provides Nick with a confession that, upon further examination, reveals that he didn’t actually admit to committing any crime--the fact that Nick has to have this explained to him only proves that he is basically a dope in shoes. He agrees to provide an actual confession in exchange for a special mattress for his cell but even though the bedding is delivered, Nick inexplicably goes into court without the confession (see what I mean) and realizes that he doesn‘t have much of a case. Defending himself, Clyde seizes upon that as an argument for him to make bail despite having completely dismembered a guy--turns out that he spent part of the last decade studying law books--and when the judge agrees with his points, he tears into her for potentially allowing a dangerous maniac to walk free on some namby-pamby legal technicality. Of course, what everyone but Nick seems to realize is that Clyde wants to be imprisoned because once he is safely behind bars, he begins to orchestrate a number of incredibly complex and barely plausible acts of revenge against those responsible for letting the killers of his family go free. One is buried alive with enough air to survive until a certain time point that is unfortunately passed thanks to the jerk warden and another goes down in a bit that should be screened in every movie theater to remind people to turn off their cell phones. As the carnage increases and the entire city is locked down, Nick must try to uncover numerous mysteries about who Clyde really is and who might be helping him before he passes on in a manner sure to be commemorated in a future “News of the Weird” column.

There are two possible approaches that “Law-Abiding Citizen” could have utilized if it wanted to succeed as a film. It could have accepted its utter ridiculousness and just charged ahead as a deliberately excessive action thriller in which every over-the-top moment was carefully designed to sate the audience’s thirst for vengeance without a single thought for any real world consequences--something along the lines of the later “Dirty Harry” and “Death Wish” movies in which the subtleties of the originals were long since sacrificed in the name of mindless bloodshed. At the same time, the same material could have been used for an outrageous satire on revenge films of its type, the casually amoral ways in which they claim to depict “justice” being served and the unnerving ways in which bloodthirsty viewers lap up such stuff in the name of mindless entertainment. Instead, screenwriter Kurt Wimmer (and before some smarty-pants writes in, I am fully aware that he is also the guy responsible for my beloved “Ultraviolet”) tries to have it both ways by giving us a brutal revenge drama in which some of the particular forms of vengeance are so deliberately bizarre (including a retrofitted bomb-defusing robot) that the audience is clearly being invited to laugh along with the slaughter. Unfortunately, the mix of the two tones doesn’t work for an instant here and the result is a film that is too unpleasant to laugh at and far too silly to take seriously for an instant. Even worse, Wimmer seems to have spent so much time thinking of unpleasant ways to kill people off that he apparently forgot to include a couple of other necessary screenplay ingredients. It is impossible, for example, to work up much of a rooting interest for either of the main characters since both of them are unpleasant, tunnel-visioned jerks who are willing to sacrifice countless numbers of people in order to achieve their personal goals and prove their points--a decent film might have acknowledged this but this one barely notices.

Then there are the points where the film tries to pretend for a little bit that it is really about something important--the inequities of the justice system and the futility of bloodshed as a way of getting revenge for horrible hurts--until it abandons even those feeble attempts at social criticism in order to play to the mob mentality for such moments as the bit when Clyde brutally slaughters his cellmate with a spork for no apparent reason (apparently there was no way for him to get into solitary confinement that didn’t involve him tearing out someone’s throat) and the big money line when Jamie Foxx gets to finally say “Fuck his civil rights” with all the zeal of a birther on the hoof. Finally, there is the minor problem that the screenplay can never quite figure out what the point of Clyde’s crime spree is or what his endgame is supposed to be. If he simply wanted everyone dead, why expend so much time, money and energy on a plan that is both ridiculously complex and just plain ridiculous (especially when you learn just how he has been able to make his seemingly impossible maneuvers) when he could have easily picked them off over the years? If his plan is to expose the inequities of the court system, how does it serve his needs to kill everyone in sight (including people who had virtually nothing to do with his original case) and destroy half the city? Instead, the story concludes with one of those nauseating scenes in which the arcane details of the mystery are finally revealed, a couple of snide comments are traded back and forth and the bad guy (not to mention many presumed bystanders) is killed off thanks to the machinations of the hero--since the hero technically didn’t pull the trigger, he is allowed to blithely walk away guilt-free and finally make it to one of his daughter’s damned cello recitals.

If there is one good thing about “Law-Abiding Citizen,” and I am pretty much grasping at straws here, it is the fact that it should be the final nail in the coffin for the absurd notion that Gerard Butler is a compelling screen personality that has permeated Hollywood ever since the freak success of “300” a couple of years ago. This time around, he couldn’t be worse if he tried--he isn’t especially menacing, he is never particularly sympathetic and the notion that he is some kind of mechanical genius is somewhat subverted by an on-screen persona that suggests that he require several hours on intently studying the instruction manual before he is capable of getting his Slinky up and running. By comparison, Jamie Foxx comes off slightly better because he merely comes off as bored and badly miscast by comparison--his take on a slick and ambitious legal type wouldn’t pass muster in a five-minute comedy skit, let alone an ostensibly serious full-length feature. The rest of the cast is populated with familiar faces (such as Bruce McGill and Leslie Bibb) who have been trucked in and given one character trait apiece to spin out until the film has no further use for them. The most notable of these performers is Viola Davis, who gets one scene as the increasingly apoplectic mayor (if only the film had the wit to name her character “Jeanne Vernon”) in which she gets to deliver an angry, show-stopping speech in much the same way that she did in her award-nominated turn in “Doubt.” Apparently, she is now Hollywood’s go-to person when a film requires an angry aria from a middle-aged black woman--she also did the same thing in “Madea Goes to Jail”--and while I am glad to see an actress as talented as her get steady work in an industry that generally has little idea of what to do with any actress that isn’t named Meryl Streep or is considered too old to appear in “Maxim,” my guess is that after seeing this vile piece of garbage for herself, her next angry speech is going to be delivered to her agent.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=18523&reviewer=389
originally posted: 10/16/09 00:00:00
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User Comments

4/06/18 Langano For people who like shiny things. 2 stars
9/14/17 morris campbell pretty good death wish clone 4 stars
9/20/10 true12 one of the best 5 stars
6/27/10 Jeff Wilder Sets up questions and avoids answering them. Foxx ok Butler weak. 2 stars
5/06/10 mr.mike Weak Foxx character undermined the movie. 3 stars
3/14/10 Raul Valdez Jr I liked the movie and hated the ending nice acting and cool action 5 stars
2/16/10 action movie fan death wish meets dirty harry in this engrossing revenge thriller which butler goes too far 5 stars
10/27/09 Salander Not involving, superficial and dumb movie form such interesting director. What a pitty! 1 stars
10/24/09 Man Out 6 Bucks Foxx character typical Philly affirmative action hire, which explains ultraviolent climax 4 stars
10/24/09 His_wife89 He said no way, kids cannot go to the park by themselves, even high school kids. , <a href= 5 stars
10/23/09 Crazy45 Notification ServiceThe notification service is a WCF Service listening to a Service Bus ev 4 stars
10/23/09 Merlin76 I'm averaging quite a few views each day so I would like my readers to be able to find me o 5 stars
10/22/09 Miss75 The plane was equipped with a weather radar too. , 5 stars
10/22/09 JXL23 She reports that she couldn't focus on the coursework until she got out of the classroom. , 4 stars
10/21/09 April May it was a sweet movie..i went to be entertained, and i was! i would watch it again! 4 stars
10/20/09 sephen breezy jadon it although highly entertaining in its build up ultimately its demise was the end basically 4 stars
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  16-Oct-2009 (R)
  DVD: 16-Feb-2010


  DVD: 16-Feb-2010

Directed by
  F. Gary Gray

Written by
  Kurt Wimmer

  Jamie Foxx
  Gerard Butler
  Viola Davis
  Leslie Bibb
  Michael Gambon
  Bruce McGill
  Regina Hall
  Colm Meaney

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