Review of Law Abiding Citizen

Director F. Gary Gray’s Law Abiding Citizen wants to be all things to all people. In its opening scenes, it quickly moves from home-invasion horror to legal drama and torture porn before eventually settling comfortably into the thriller template. Beneath it all, it also aims to be an allegory on both America’s domestic justice system and its foreign policy — the film’s central question of whether it’s ever right to negotiate with criminals applies just as well to terrorists.

As could be expected from a film with so many goals, it’s also a mess. Gray and screenwriter Kurt Wimmer spend so much time building up dubious moral dilemmas that they neglect the actual plot. Despite a few genuinely interesting moments (and some decent explosions), the film mostly ends up alternating between cliché and melodrama.

The conflict in Law Abiding Citizen boils down to a difference of opinion. Philadelphia prosecutor Nick Rice (Jamie Foxx) believes that some justice is better than no justice and that plea bargains are a useful tool for making sure that criminals spend at least some time in jail. Clyde Shelton (Gerard Butler), on the other hand, would rather let 1,000 innocent men die than see a guilty man cop to a lesser charge. When Clyde’s wife and daughter are brutally murdered in a home invasion, Nick lets one of the guilty men off lightly in exchange for his testimony — it’s a win-win for the prosecutor, as he gets to keep his near-perfect conviction rate and see that some amount of justice is done. Clyde doesn’t see things in quite the same way and he spends the next decade planning an elabourate scheme to take revenge on Nick, the criminals and the whole freaking system — all from inside the prison.

It’s a perfectly serviceable plot, provided you can get past some of the bigger nits (if Clyde’s suspected of masterminding what’s essentially a terrorist plot from inside the prison, why not keep him under constant observation?), but Gray never manages to find the right tone. Butler admirably tries to keep his vigilante grounded, at least emotionally, but that doesn’t jibe with monologues that are a half-step removed from cartoon supervillainy. Add in Foxx’s bland but sincere performance and you have a film whose actors are at odds with its content — it’s too restrained to be a Taken-style action romp, but too over-the-top to be taken seriously.

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