Rating: 3.5 out of 5
When people get angry in movies, they can get really angry.
For the purposes of the blow-things-up thriller, the rage-afflicted protagonist will be someone who puts together a plan – after years of harbouring a grudge and making meticulous plans – to hunt down the bad guys and do bad things to them.
The revenge angle has been seen in Man on Fire (Denzel Washington knocks off the bad guys to retrieve a beloved kidnapped girl) and the 2009 local movie Blood Ties (where the hero returns in spirit to possess his younger sis, and gets her to off the baddies).
The set-up for Law Abiding Citizen is similar to Blood Ties, in that the male protagonist is subject to a home invasion, whereby he is forced to watch his wife raped and murdered. Here, his young daughter is killed as well, after suggested sexual abuse.
Typically, for this vigilante genre, the bad guys will have messed with the wrong person.
Turns out the surviving widower Clyde Shelton (Gerard Butler) is some kind of covert ops guy who is capable of inventing all kinds of gadgets and fiendishly clever methods for killing his enemies.
Ten years after the prosecutor Nick Rice (Jamie Foxx) makes a deal to get the death penalty for one of the murderers, but allows the other to go free after just three years in jail, Shelton returns with a vengeance.
This film, directed by F Gary Gray (The Italian Job), takes the concept of revenge further by having Shelton wreak havoc not just with the killers, but with the entire justice system.
There is an ongoing questioning of what constitutes ‘justice’ and ‘human rights’ in a post-9/11 America, and Shelton is the conduit for the collective consciousness of the modern-day civil rights movement.
He is angry about the killers who destroyed his life – a happy familial one despite his morally ambiguous covert ops background – and he is angry about deal-making lawyers like Rice, who tell him it’s not what you know about right and wrong, it’s about what you can prove in court.
And he is really angry about the flawed justice system.
Butler spends the whole movie torn up inside, weeping for his losses, and sneering as he carries out his diabolical plan. It’s a role he plays well, a persona he wears well, as the body count mounts.
After the killers are dealt with, in gruesome fashion, the defence lawyer is targeted, then members of the judiciary, all the way to the public prosecutor’s office.
Through all this, Rice and Shelton are locked in a battle of wills, as the latter baits the former and tries to get him to admit that the system does not work, and that lawyers who strive for high conviction rates rather than a righteous outcome are part of the problem.
In essence, Law Abiding Citizen isn’t as cerebral as Fracture (2007), an excellent, absorbing courtroom drama where Anthony Hopkins similarly plays cat-and-mouse with his prosecutor, played by Ryan Gosling.
But it is still gripping, edge-of-your-seats stuff for at least two-thirds of the movie, as we realise the degree to which Shelton is willing to go to prove his point, and how long it takes for Rice to see that he is fighting a futile battle.
The film does disappoint when it reverts to a standard race-against-time, find-the-bomb chase in stumbling towards a not-very-satisfying conclusion.
But that doesn’t take away from one of the better thrillers in recent times, one which underscores Butler’s strength in leading roles that require an emotional depth and complexity.
About Yong Shu Chiang
Yong Shu Chiang, otherwise known as SC, is a freelance editor and writer. He reviewed movies for Juice magazine when he was in college, and was the resident film reviewer for Today Newspaper from 2003 to 2005. He has also reviewed movies for Prime Time Morning on Channel NewsAsia.
"Just when I thought I was out... they pull me back in!"
-- Michael Corleone, The Godfather Part III