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Bag of Hair, Meet Box of Rocks

By Dustin Rowles | Film | October 16, 2009 |

By Dustin Rowles | Film | October 16, 2009 |

Law Abiding Citizen is a terrible movie, but it didn’t have to be. I suppose you could say that about a lot of films, but this one in particular dabbled in a few ideas that were above its pay grade, so to speak. It hinted at being a film about our judicial system, about exposing its flaws, about breaking them open and revealing the sometimes ethically and morally insidious nature of the law, and the way efficiency often trumps justice. But it never digs into those ideas, instead devolving into a clunky and ham-fisted action-thriller that eschews logic in favor of hollow sentiment and a body count.

Gerard Butler stars as Clyde Shelton, whose wife and daughter are murdered by a couple of common house burglars in the opening minutes of the movie. During the murders, Clyde is tied up on his floor, helplessly forced to watch as one man nearly rapes his wife before killing her and, presumably, violates his adolescent daughter before snuffing out her life (her death, fortuitously, happens off-screen).

Jamie Foxx plays Nick Rice, the slick and ambitious prosecutor assigned to the case. Naturally, he has a 96 percent conviction rate, because in the movies, people keep up with this sort of thing. Rice strikes a plea — he turns one of the murderers against the other. That murderer testifies against th other in exchange for a third-degree murder conviction, while the other gets the death penalty. The sentence, however, is not satisfactory to Clyde, who wants to see them both get the needle.

Cut to a decade later. Clyde, as it turns out, is an government engineer of sorts, a man whose expertise is in killing people who are not in the same room as he is. Clyde manages to taint the lethal injection procedure, so that one of his wife’s murderers suffers in death. Then he tracks down his other murderer — now out of prison — paralyzes him with blowfish poison and cuts off all his appendages — arms, legs, testicles, and scrotum — while his victim is forced to watch (that is, until his head is also removed).

Nick Rice, who has now risen the career ladder to second-in-command of the D.A.’s office, arrests Clyde, gets a confession out of him, and confines him to prison, which is where the “fun” actually begins. Clyde somehow manages to systematically murder many of those associated with his case from inside his prison cell, while Rice and Co. scramble to save their own hides, helpless to do anything, as they’re hamstrung by their own legal system.

I suppose it goes without saying that it goes shitballs awry from there, and only my duty as a film critic is preventing me from revealing the unbelievably moronic way in which Clyde manages all this destruction from inside prison.

A better director, a couple of better actors, and a rewrite by a better screenwriter could’ve turned Law Abiding Citizen into more than just a stupid action movie. David Fincher could’ve made more of it. Aaron Sorkin could’ve cleaned up the script and parsed out the ideas underneath the murders, and much better actors than Jamie Foxx and Gerard Butler could’ve transformed Law Abiding Citizen into something special.

The problem is that director F. Gary Gray (The Italian Job, Be Cool), working off a Kurt Wimmer script (The Street Kings, Thomas Crown Affair) which refuses to play in the gray areas that might have elevated Law Abiding Citizen. In the beginning, you want to side with Clyde — two men senselessly and brutally murdered his family. But as soon as Clyde goes after the defense attorney, the black and white emerge, and the movie’s villain becomes clear. But if someone else — say, a George Clooney or Matt Damon — had come aboard and delivered a more arresting performance as Clyde, backed up by a convincing beef with a legitimately flawed system, the dynamics might have changed. We might have rooted for the antagonist out of sympathy. Law Abiding Citizen might have challenged our own perceptions of the legal system. We might have questioned our own allegiances. And in the end, we might have felt torn between the process and a man who lost his family.

But of course, we know that Hollywood doesn’t play that way — Law Abiding Citizen doesn’t want to provoke thought or challenge notions. It just wants to blow up people and give us what we expect: An evil man vs. a just and fair legal system. And it wants to do so in the most predictably illogical way imaginable.

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Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.