June 4, 2010

Law Abiding Citizen (2009)

WHEN I SAW THE TRAILER FOR Law Abiding Citizen last fall, it looked like a delicious tale of one man’s revenge on the men who killed his family – and on the justice system that failed to punish them.

While I didn’t get a chance to catch it in theaters, it finally worked itself up the ranks in my Netflix queue, and into my mailbox last week.


Philadelphia inventor Clyde Shelton (Gerard Butler) has his world torn apart when two men barge into his home, beat and stab him, rape and murder his wife (Brooke Mills), then kill his little girl (Ksenia Hulayev). The criminals, Darby (Christian Stolte) and Ames (Joshua Stuart), are caught, and the case goes to hotshot prosecutor Nick Rice (Jamie Foxx). Realizing he can’t win a first-degree murder case, he cuts a deal where Darby – who actually committed the rape and murders – will testify against Ames and receive a lesser sentence, despite tearful pleading from Shelton.

Fast-forward 10 years. Darby has served his time and is back to his hoodlum ways, while Ames receives his death penalty, which goes horribly wrong. Meanwhile, as Darby escapes a police raid on his apartment, he’s kidnapped by Shelton, who brutally tortures Darby to death (and to pieces). Shelton is soon arrested, and from behind bars he somehow begins to kill off people in the legal system he feels are responsible for going easy on his family’s killers. How? Turns out Shelton’s really a government spy – a “brain” who figures out ways to kill people, according to a former colleague, “without ever being in the same room.”


As much I was hoping to enjoy Law Abiding Citizen – and its potential to raise debate over what is truly justice, and whether revenge ever brings peace to those who exact it – the film is flawed from the start. We are given literally three minutes to meet Shelton’s family before they’re slaughtered, providing the viewer with zero chance to create an emotional investment in them or in Shelton’s love for them.

And without that opportunity to make an emotional investment, we’re left seeing Shelton the way Nick and the film’s legal system see him: as a case, not a person. Even five more minutes of Shelton loving his family, or a scene of him grieving for them, before we leap forward ten years would have helped.

But even if that additional emotional display had been provided, it still wouldn’t solve Citizen’s other problems, one of the biggest being its inability to define itself. Is it a crime thriller? A revenge yarn? A murder mystery? A mental chess match between two determined men? An indictment of the legal system? Unfortunately, it’s a little of each, and ultimately it’s the film’s downfall.

Director F. Gary Gray (Friday, The Italian Job) peppers Citizen with many aerial and crane shots – including two separate flies past the William Penn statue atop City Hall as if to say, “Hey don’t forget; this takes place in Philly!” Add to this his overuse of Brian Tyler’s sweeping score, and it creates a false sense of epic scope.

As a married dad of two kids, I was really hoping to have more a visceral reaction as Shelton carried out his vengeance on Ames and Darby. Yes, the scene of Shelton describing to Darby what’s he going to do to him is both horrifying and exhilarating – but it’s over within a few minutes, and we’re tossed back into a film that’s lacking an identity. That’s not to say Citizen doesn’t try to mimic other greater films’ identities to create its own – its over-atmospheric interiors, with their hazy lighting, makes one think instantly of The Silence of the Lambs or Seven. (The bad news: You’re not watching either of those creepy classics; you’re stuck with this uneven story for 109 minutes.)

With Law Abiding Citizen, the worst crime committed isn’t the killing of Shelton’s family, or Shelton’s reign of terror on the city. It’s that the film simply doesn’t make us care enough about anyone involved: Not Shelton and his trail of vengeance, not Nick and his family when Shelton gets close to them, not Nick’s coworkers as they are picked off…and most tragic of all, not Shelton’s wife and daughter.

Sorry, Mr. Gray: You can have Shelton stare at that DADDY charm bracelet from his daughter in scene after scene to try and emotionally manipulate the viewer…but the fact that you and screenwriter Kurt Wimmer give literally less than five minutes of screen time to her and her mother is truly the ultimate sin of the film.


Is it suitable for your kids?
Law Abiding Citizen is justifiably rated R and is rife with violence, starting with the opening scene of Shelton’s family being attacked. It’s an especially bloody film, including the aftermath of Clyde’s murder of Darby (body parts are everywhere), Shelton stabs his cellmate to death with a spork (yes, a spork), a rigged cell phone blows someone’s head half off, and there are multiple deaths by explosions and gunfire. So no, it’s not suitable for your kids…until maybe they reach their early to mid-teens, at least.

Will your FilmMother want to watch it?
If she’s a fan of either Butler or Foxx (which I know many women are), they may want to see Citizen. You could do worse, but you could also do a lot better.

Whaddya mean, you didn’t think Wanda was funny?

Law Abiding Citizen
* Director: F. Gary Gray
* Screenwriter: Kurt Wimmer
* Stars: Gerard Butler, Jamie Foxx, Bruce McGill, Colm Meaney, Leslie Bibb, Regina Hall
* MPAA Rating: R (strong bloody brutal violence and torture, a scene of rape, pervasive language)

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Univarn said...

What kills this movie for me is it just has no idea what it wants to be. And it annoyed me to no end.

Starts gritty, no holds bar, vengeance. Then he becomes a super assassin. Then he becomes a realistic terrorist. And just runs around randomly from there. All the while crapping on its own message in favor of big explosions.

The Vault Master said...

I agree with you Univarn, it really didn't know what it wanted to be. It started out as a sharp condemnation of our legal and justice systems, and then fell apart as it tried to turn into an action / mystery. And the ending.... totally pissed me off...

Keith said...

I saw it not that long ago. It was alright, but nothing special.

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Derek Armstrong said...

The Vault Master hinted at it ... "how he's doing it" ends up being pretty bogus, though at least they allowed him ten years to set it up.

Anonymous said...

It wasnt a spork, it was the Bone from the steak.

Watch Law Abiding Citizen said...

Law Abiding Citizen is as close as you’re going to get. Actually, that premise might have been a better idea for a film than the bloody revenge thriller we get served up here.


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