'Law Abiding Citizen': Revenge, Best Served Remotely

Jamie Foxx and Michael Irby i i

A Philadelphia Story: Working in one of America's crime capitals keeps hot-shot district attorney Nick Rice (Jamie Foxx, center, with Michael Irby, left, and Brian Distance) in the news, but his commitment to a high conviction rate turns out to have its costs. Overture Films hide caption

itoggle caption Overture Films
Jamie Foxx and Michael Irby

A Philadelphia Story: Working in one of America's crime capitals keeps hot-shot district attorney Nick Rice (Jamie Foxx, center, with Michael Irby, left, and Brian Distance) in the news, but his commitment to a high conviction rate turns out to have its costs.

Overture Films

Law Abiding Citizen

  • Director: F. Gary Gray
  • Genre: Vigilante Thriller
  • Running Time: 108 minutes

Rated R: Violence, torture, rape, profane language

With: Gerard Butler, Jamie Foxx, Leslie Bibb, Colm Meaney, Bruce McGill, Viola Davis

Bad news for anyone who wants to systematically annihilate his enemies by remote control: Law Abiding Citizen will not show you how to do it.

This preposterous vigilante drama does pretend to be a procedural, moving step by step as enraged "citizen" Clyde Shelton (300's Gerard Butler) takes his revenge on prosecutor Nick Rice (Jamie Foxx). But director F. Gary Gray and scripter Kurt Wimmer fudge the details, undercutting the movie's grim purposefulness with developments that are laughably implausible.

The body count begins with the very first sequence, when two standard-issue rapist-murderers burst into the Philadelphia row house Shelton shares with his wife and daughter. After the briefly depicted home invasion, Shelton is the only family member still breathing.

The two assailants are soon in custody, but Rice advises Shelton that only one will get the death penalty. The other will serve a short sentence in exchange for testifying against his partner in crime. The grieving husband and father objects, but it's too late; the cocky prosecutor, who'll do nothing that threatens his high conviction rate, tells Shelton that he's already made the plea-bargain deal.

Shelton is outraged, but patient. So the story jumps forward 10 years, to the beginning of his vengeance campaign. Implacably, Shelton arranges horrible deaths for the two criminals. Then he proceeds to Rice's co-workers, the judge in the case and assorted bystanders. As for that calculating prosecutor himself?

"He's saving you for last," Detective Dunnigan (Colm Meaney) helpfully informs Rice.

Gerard Butler Before Fire i i

Vigilante killer Clyde Shelton (Gerard Butler) turns out to be a former spy — with a skill set even James Bond might envy. Overture Films hide caption

itoggle caption Overture Films
Gerard Butler Before Fire

Vigilante killer Clyde Shelton (Gerard Butler) turns out to be a former spy — with a skill set even James Bond might envy.

Overture Films

Even after Shelton is apprehended and imprisoned, the attacks continue. Rice and Dunnigan find a former spy who once worked with the vigilante, who solemnly explains that the man is a master of homicide from a distance. To illustrate his point, the ex-spook recounts how Shelton managed to kill a terrorist who had long evaded assassination simply by sending him a Kevlar tie.

We're supposed to be awed, but a more reasonable response is to giggle. How does a Kevlar tie kill? And if it can, why hasn't the CIA sent a Kevlar scarf to Osama bin Laden?

Such muddled particulars are typical of Law Abiding Citizen, which can't decide from scene to scene whether Rice works for the Justice Department, the state of Pennsylvania or the city of Philadelphia. At one point, Philly's mayor (a misused Viola Davis) seems to be in charge, and takes the opportunity to bark orders. "If you have to give the shotguns to the meter maids, do it!" It's unclear how that would help, but the mayor's panicky command does express the movie's attitude: Get some guns! Grab a handsaw! Blow stuff up!

Rooting for the bombs, in fact, is probably the best way to enjoy the movie. It's hard to sympathize with Rice, a self-serving careerist. And even supporters of vigilantism may lose sympathy for Shelton, who threatens people who are only tangentially involved in the case — including Rice's teenage daughter.

Eventually, Rice learns what Shelton has been trying to teach him. For everyone else, Law Abiding Citizen offers only the unedifying lesson of most Hollywood action flicks: Pyrotechnics trump common sense.

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