In some ways, I should probably be happy about Law Abiding Citizen, simply because it’s an attempt at bringing the evil genius character back into the movies. Once—with the likes of Dr. Mabuse and Fu Manchu—the cinema was rife with evil madmen. Here, we get a little bit of the same thing—an insane genius (Gerard Butler) tries, through a series of improbable evildoings, to wreak havoc on the justice system that let him down—except with all the pulpy fun taken away in exchange for a sheen of self-seriousness.
The movie would like you to think it has something on its mind, namely, what does justice really mean? And for a bit, director F. Gary Gray (Be Cool) appears to actually have something to say, when he juxtaposes a young girl’s (Emerald-Angel Young) cello recital with an inmate (Josh Stewart, The Collector) being put to death. But whatever Gray is attempting to convey about “the death penalty as spectacle” doesn’t last as he proceeds to populate the next 90 minutes of his movie with pointless gore. And in the end, the movie undercuts any point it might’ve had about the ills of vigilante justice with its own climax. None of this, however, stops the film from patting its own back over its self-imposed significance.
If you haven’t seen the trailer, Butler plays Clyde Shelton, a seemingly mild-mannered family man whose wife (Brooke Mills) and daughter (Ksenia Hulayev) are brutally murdered during a home invasion. When one of the culprits (Christian Stolte, Public Enemies) makes a plea deal with local D.A. Nick Rice (Jamie Foxx), Clyde is none too happy. Fast forward a decade, and Clyde’s carefully plotted revenge scheme against the Philadelphia justice system starts rolling.
As conniving revenge plots go, Clyde’s is pretty convoluted and includes not only torture, but also everything from car bombs to cell-phone guns. Not only that, but the entire plan unfolds while Clyde is stuck in prison. From here, the movie is a matter of Nick—who appears to be Clyde’s final target—trying to stop the bad guy before it’s too late.
As a premise it’s not bad, but the movie never has any fun with it, especially since Clyde’s revenge is predicated on any number of contrivances or leaps in logic and believability—something that’s only magnified by the movie’s stone-faced seriousness, which, in turn, takes a potentially entertaining foundation and turns it into a dull slog. Rated R for strong bloody brutal violence and torture, a scene of rape, and pervasive language.