F. Gary Gray
The bible tells us that The meek shall inherit the Earth but it doesnt seem like they had Gerard Butler in mind when they wrote it. Nevertheless, Law Abiding Citizen is certainly a film of biblical proportions – from the sweeping aerial shots of the Philadelphia skyline to the grand themes of justice and vengeance or right and wrong.
Clyde Shelton (Butler) is the seemingly meek-mannered, law-abiding citizen of the title and he would have remained meek and happy had it not been for the brutal and unprovoked murder of his wife and young daughter. His tragedy brings him into contact with the charismatic, ambitious and career-minded prosecutor Nick Rice (Jamie Foxx). They are all set when Nick cuts a deal with one of the two killers to secure a guaranteed death row sentence for the other.
But Nick is concerned that they will lose the whole case if it goes to trial so he tries to convince Clyde that Some justice is better than no justice at all – the fact that a risky trial will affect this perfect conviction record is clearly also a deciding factor.
Ten years later, the two men accused of the murder are killed in the most horrific and cruel ways and prosecutor Nick finds himself reunited with Clyde, this time as a perpetrator rather than a victim. Clyde is not simply a quiet, mild-mannered family man anymore; he casually admits to the murders and demands that Nick fix the flawed judicial system or everyone involved in the case will pay the consequences. Now Nick is caught up in a race against time and against a hyper-intelligent adversary whose ingenious machinations show he is always one step ahead.
Law Abiding Citizen is a slick and glossy Hollywood film with a fantastic line-up of onscreen talent. Academy award winning Jamie Foxx (Ray) goes head to head with Gerard Butler (of 300 fame). The supporting cast is similarly starry with Oscar nominated Viola Davis (Doubt) as the powerhouse mayor of Philadelphia as well as Colm Meaney (The Commitments, Star Trek), Michael Irby (The Unit) and Bruce McGill (Obsessed).
Both Foxx and Butler (who also produces) give strong and convincing performances and are a well-matched pair in this game of cat and mouse. Each man is searching for morality and justice in his own way; and although both Nick and Clyde are not one-dimensional caricatures, their character arcs tend to be on the predictable side. Nick Rice, in particular, ends up pursuing a career at the expense of his family life and personal morality. So when these predictable characters (who are also supposed to be very clever) are slow to spot obvious plot points, they stop being credible and the audience stops caring.
Overall there is a sense of melodrama and epic scale that is not matched with sustained tension throughout. Every time the characters stop to reflect on the moral ethics or simply catch up on the exposition, the film loses pace and believability. To the point where situations and decisions are clear to everyone except the characters on screen, this leaves the audience with a sense of impending dread but no tension.
Essentially, Law Abiding Citizen has a good premise but the execution is a little simplistic at times. The moments of introspection that dot around the action thrills are supposed to show how clever and complex the characters are, but only serve to slow down a film that would otherwise be a commendable thrill ride.