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Entries in Law Abiding Citizen [2009] (1)

Thursday
Mar172011

Law Abiding Citizen (2009)

Letter of the Saw

I'm pretty sure the first time I saw the trailer for Law Abiding Citizen was at a screening of Saw VI.  After it was over, I turned to my friend and asked, "Isn't it a bit early to remake Saw?"

He gave me a puzzled look and said, "Dude, that looks nothing like Saw."

Points to me for Acrity!

In fairness, Law Abiding Citizen is not strictly a rip-off of the torture porn blockbuster; it's a dolled-up, serious version of the rape/revenge thriller--or, more to the point, it's Edge of Darkness with death traps. As unappealing as that may sound, I liked this movie about as much as I like the early Saw films; up until the climax, which I hated as much as the entirety of Edge of Darkness.

Mild-mannered family man Clyde Shelton (Gerard Butler) is the victim of a home invasion, during which he's bound, gagged, and forced to watch his wife and daughter be sexually assaulted and murdered.  He relies on hotshot assistant D.A. Nick Rice (Jamie Foxx) to convict the assailants, a thief named Ames (Josh Stewart) and his loose canon partner, Darby (Christian Stolte).  Rice doesn't want to tarnish his 96% conviction record on a case with shaky physical evidence, so he cuts a deal with Darby: A three-year prison sentence in exchange for testifying that Ames did the killing--a false confession, we know, that will place Ames on death row.

Dissatisfied with the deal and the verdict, Shelton decides that the entire legal system is corrupt.  He disappears for a decade, and resurfaces as a mastermind of vengeance: He switches Ames's lethal-injection fluids with acid, and videotapes himself cutting a paralyzed Darby into twenty-five pieces.  The cops apprehend Shelton quickly, and he heads off to prison without complaint.

It turns out a man can do a lot of damage from behind bars, though, especially if that man is an ex-CIA covert-lethal-gadgets expert (Shelton's given a fancier title, but I don't remember it).  Rice watches in horror as everyone connected to the Shelton case are subjected to hideous time-based games whose rules are all set by his client: If Shelton doesn't get an expensive steak dinner in his cell by 1pm, the box in which Darby's defense attorney is buried will run out of oxygen; if Shelton doesn't get a full pardon by 6am, something very bad will happen to Rice's legal team.

Aside from Darby's execution, none of the traps are particularly bloody.  Shelton's aim is to do away with the rusty cogs of the justice system, not to relish their demise or offer a chance of redemption (as did the Saw franchise's Jigsaw Killer).  Shelton targets Rice personally, though, as a sterling example of how greed and expedience have tainted the American legal apparatus, resulting in notoriety and wealth for a few and broken lives for countless others.  Law Abiding Citizen's strongest moments are between a man who refuses to grasp the weight of his job and his rival, who will go to any lengths to remind him what he supposedly stands for--even at the expense of his own dead family's memory.

Having said all that, the film gets a tad ridiculous towards the end, as we learn how Shelton is able to pull off these elaborate schemes (including operating a mobile military machine gun/rocket launcher, which takes out Rice's boss during a funeral procession)--it's a "You've Gotta Be Fucking Kidding Me" take on the old tunnel-out-of-prison-with-a-spoon gag.

I must also subtract points for the film's ending, in which Rice turns the tables on Shelton, and screenwriter Kurt Wimmer turns the tables on the audience. The film tracks Shelton's deterioration from complicated yet seemingly decent man to vengeance-seeking lunatic, but his principles are solid throughout.  No sane person condones assassinating judges (in a moment, I confess, that made me jump); but it's easy to see where Shelton is coming from.  For two hours, we anticipate Rice's eventual breakdown, his come-to-Jesus moment; by losing those closest to him and seeing for himself how politicized and uncaring the system is, we're led to believe he'll eventually succumb to Shelton's philosophy.

But because this movie was made to appeal to a mass audience (at least the masses who turn out for brutal, mainstream crime thrillers), Shelton's nuanced villainy must be undone in the last act, as must Rice's journey to the truth.  Had Wimmer and director F. Gary Gray not pulled their punches and gone for the thrilling yet disheartening moral ambiguity of Saw's downer ending--in essence, standing by the convictions they'd established for five-sixths of their film--Law Abiding Citizen might have been a solid movie from start to finish.

Before wrapping up, I'd like to take a moment to talk about clichés.  I've railed against them, especially recently, and can understand how you might wonder why I give a pass to a flop like Law Abiding Citizen, but trash popular hits such as True Grit and Rango.  The issue boils down to proportion: If a movie is packed with things I've seen before, yet offers a handful of things I've either never seen or didn't expect to see in a particular context, it's much easier to overlook than a film that's boilerplate from start to finish.  There are whole scenes in this film that have been lifted from other movies of its kind (most notably the search for the boxed-in lawyer, which won't remind you at all of Se7en, unless you've never seen it).  But by centering the story on Shelton's legal/philosophical argument, the movie gives us something to chew on--an issue that evolves with the characters and our perceptions of them.

I was also surprised by Butler's performance.  He's neither the bombastic alpha male of 300, nor the dashing cad who's stunk up so many romantic comedies in the last few years; Shelton is his most fully realized role to date, and I enjoyed unraveling the layers of his fractured personality.  This is crucial to keeping Shelton and Rice's scenes afloat, as Jamie Foxx gives a more inconsistent performance.  Much of the time, the comic-turned-Oscar-winning-actor seems to be grasping for the meaning of his words--he strikes me as a law student at a partners luncheon, rather than a slick, callous attorney.  But Butler carries enough water that by the middle of the film, I was invested and satisfied.

Law Abiding Citizen is an ugly movie full of dark themes.  It's not for everyone, but it may be for people who believe it's not for them at all.