That’s not necessarily a bad thing, or unexpected. Revenge fantasies and nihilism go hand-in-hand; they’re about nothing but the exertion of power. When well done that can create some potent, if shallow, entertainment. When extremely well done it can even tell a compelling a story about the nature and importance of valuing things beyond oneself.
Well, director F. Gary Gray (“Be Cool”) and screenwriter Kurt Wimmer (“Ultraviolet”) aren’t having any of that.
On its face, “Law Abiding Citizen” is the most standard of all revenge fantasies: the wronged everyman, whose desire for vengeance pushes him to exceptionalism. A horrible exceptionalism filled with death and brutality that is initially acceptable because surely the people on the other end have it coming.
See, Clyde Shelton (Gerard Butler) was a loving family man, until a pair of habitual criminals broke into his home and torment and kill his wife and daughter in front of him. When the Assistant District Attorney (Jaime Foxx) in charge of his case decides to cut a deal with one of the criminals in order to ensure conviction, Shelton feels betrayed and decides true justice can only be found at his own hands.
Which is initially understandable as the villain (Christian Stolte), who cuts the deal, is the most unbelievable kind of sadistic jerk (he can’t stop himself from goading Foxx one last time before his plea agreement is signed, just so we know how big a jerk he is) its almost like nothing done to him could be more awful than he deserves.
It’s way over the top, sure, but it’s not exactly alone in that regard. Gray isn’t the first, and certainly won’t be the last, director who feels compelled to overdo defining characteristics in order to make sure the audience is feeling what they’re supposed to feel. Real people after all are a quagmire of conflicting emotions and rationales, and that just won’t do for “Law Abiding Citizen’s” purposes.
Darby, it turns out, is just the beginning and in retrospect isn’t over the top at all. In fact he’s positively reserved in conception compared with the smorgasbord of insanity “Law Abiding Citizen” offers up as this unassuming, uninspired little revenge fantasy goes flying off the rails into a bus full of handicapped children whom it proceeds to set fire to and then stomp on. It’s the kind of movie that blows up a car with an RPG only after it’s riddled everyone in it with anti-tank rounds.
It turns out that Shelton doesn’t want revenge on Darby after all. He wants revenge on The System. The corrupt, enigmatic, pervasive System that is the root of all our ills. Shelton’s got it in his head that if he maims, murders and blows up enough members of The System people will lose faith in it the way he has and then do something else… Actually he’s little bit fuzzy on everything that doesn’t have to do with maiming and blowing up.
Which he’s very good at because it turns out he’s not an everyman at all. I won’t spoil his background; just suffice it to say they’ve come up with a character that can carry out plots at his leisure despite spending most of the film locked in a prison cell, anticipating every move his opponents could make.
The focus of his ire is, naturally, Foxx who let the murderer of his family go (minus a paltry few years in prison) because of his devotion to The System. Devotion so strong it causes him to miss most of his home life and all of his daughter’s cello recitals (which is about as much as we ever learn about them).
Shelton is going to teach him a lesson, teach him that at the end of the day civil discourse and rule of law mean nothing. That there is only right and wrong and there is only one punishment for wrong.
An argument could be made that “Law Abiding Citizen” is secretly poking fun at these kinds of movies. That it is hauling our little fantasies out into the light and showing us just how petty we are for romanticizing them by making them literally unenjoyable. But that’s an awful big reach. It seems more likely the filmmakers were so wrapped up in Shelton’s traps and the twists and turns of the narrative, the ‘what will happen next!’ that Hollywood loves, that they never noticed the illegible scrawl they were creating.
“Law Abiding Citizen” is decently crafted and despite Butler’s continued inability to act, it manages to get by on the quiet power Foxx is getting better and better at. But don’t let any of that sway you. “Law Abiding Citizen” is about as hollow as it is possible for a film to get and like all vacuums, if you get too close it will suck you in, never to be heard from again.