What do you get when you mix A-list stars with a B-movie script that’s equal parts “Saw”, “Death Wish”, and “Law & Order”? A bit of an inconsistent mess, actually, but a surprisingly gory and fairly entertaining one nonetheless.
Gerard Butler stars as Clyde Shelton, a grieving father who lost his wife and child in a brutal home invasion. Nick Rice (Jamie Foxx), the up-and-coming prosecutor tasked with trying the killers, offers a plea bargain to one of them in exchange for his testimony against the other. This doesn’t sit well with Shelton, who Rice had assured they’d had an open and shut case, as Darby, the man receiving the plea bargain, was directly responsible for his wife and child’s death. Rice, however, doesn’t want to jeopardize his 96% conviction rate, and, in his mind, feels that a little justice is better than no justice at all. Darby receives a five year sentence, while his comparably innocent accomplice, Ames, gets the death penalty.
Flash forward ten years. Rice, now the Assistant District Attorney with a wife and little girl of his own, attends the execution of Ames, who is scheduled to die by lethal injection. Ames, once again, proclaims his innocence before his sentence is carried out, but, what is intended to be a near-painless procedure turns into something horrific, as Ames’ screams in agony while the poison coursing through his veins eats through his skin. Someone has tampered with the delivery system, and all signs point back to Darby, who, after serving three years of his sentence, is back on the streets. Rice and Detective Dunnigan (Colm Meaney) rush to Darby’s apartment, but they’re too late, as someone has already contacted Darby and told him that the police were on their way. The mysterious voice on the phone leads Darby to a policeman sleeping in his cruiser, and tells him to commandeer the vehicle, and have the officer drive him to an isolated and abandoned warehouse on the outskirts of the city. It’s here that we learn the true identity of Darby’s “guardian angel”. It’s Shelton, and he’s got a bone to pick with the man. Literally. Shelton drugs Darby and, when the man awakens, he finds himself strapped to a table and surrounded by all manner of power tools and cutting implements. Shelton then proceeds to dismantle Darby, bit-by-torturous-bit, leaving behind a gruesome crime scene for Rice, as well as next-to-no-doubt as to who Darby’s killer is. Shelton is easily tracked down and quietly arrested. It all appears to be nothing more than a slam-dunk case of a grieving man exacting his revenge on the man who murdered his family, and Rice swoops in expecting a easy confession. Shelton, however, has other ideas, and it soon becomes apparent that killing Darby and Ames were merely a prelude to a much more ambitious plot; one whose target is the very judicial system that failed him.
Law Abiding Citizen is a revenge thriller on steroids. It’s got big everything, from the actors top-lining the film to the very nature of Shelton’s grandiose scheme, but, lost in all of this is the very crux of what makes a good revenge movie such a satisfying and visceral experience, and that’s characters we can relate to, and a situation we can empathize with. The best examples of this genre usually give us a little time to get to know our characters, introduce us to their loved ones, and give us a general sense of their lives before taking it all away in one fateful swoop. Here, though, Shelton’s wife and daughter are killed before the opening credits, denying the viewer a chance to get to know these characters. I accept the fact that certain aspects about Shelton are kept under wraps for plot purposes, but it wouldn’t be giving anything away to show us some interaction between he and his wife (the only time we even hear her speak, she is off screen!), or throw us the bone of a title montage to at least give us a taste of this man’s life and what it is, exactly, that he’s lost. Sure, Butler effectively displays his grief with a hangdog expression and tear-filled eyes, but we never get a true sense of this man’s pain, thus denying the viewer any real sense of emotional investment in his character or any amount of satisfaction when he exacts his revenge. This steers the focus away from Shelton and makes Rice the film’s emotional center, which would be fine if he were an even remotely sympathetic character, but, as played by Foxx, he’s all cocky swagger and stoicism, even as the bodies of his friends and colleagues are piling up around him.
What’s even more confusing is that, as Shelton grows more ruthless and Rice becomes more vulnerable, it seems we’re supposed to identify with Rice, and root for him to find a way to stop Shelton before he takes more “innocent” lives. The thing is, Rice uses the same duplicitous tactics to stop Shelton as he did to start this whole revenge plot rolling, and, save for a throwaway line where he admits that he was probably wrong for making the plea bargain that set Shelton off, is seemingly unaffected by this elaborately orchestrated morality lesson. In the end, Rice - the man whose own indifference singlehandedly set these events into motion – walks away unchanged, unscathed, and with a nice promotion, to boot. What, exactly, is the lesson here?
Okay, so I just spent more than half of the review trashing the loose morals of Law Abiding Citizen, and I haven’t even touched upon its myriad lapses in logic, but I’ll spare you that and, instead, explain why I’m still giving this film a somewhat favorable rating. I actually had a lot of fun watching this movie. It’s an ethical nightmare, but, in terms of big, dumb, star-powered entertainment, it’s a bit of a wheeze. It’s also one of the most violent non-horror films I’ve seen in ages, with some seriously grisly scenes that surprised the hell out of me, especially one choice bit involving Butler and a T-bone that has to be seen to be believed. I’m also a sucker for revenge flicks in general, and, even though this one played fast and loose with the rules of the genre, I did appreciate the Jigsaw-like manner in which Shelton dispatches his early victims. Once the true scope of his plan is revealed, however, things get downright preposterous, but I still found myself giggling like a schoolgirl every time one of Shelton’s intricate little schemes came to fruition.
Anchor Bay presents Law Abiding Citizen on Blu-ray, with a solid 2.39:1 1080p transfer. The film has a fairly drab, desaturated color palette, with lots of deep, dark tones and bright whites, with very little in between. Even the ample amounts of blood has an almost blackish quality to it. This makes for a fairly flat looking image, but the contrast levels are spot on, and the level of fine detail is exemplary.
The Dolby True HD 5.1 soundtrack is extremely loud and I found the mix to be somewhat uneven as dialogue was barely discernible at low volumes while explosions and the film’s score were downright overpowering. I found myself bouncing back and forth between volume settings before finally giving in and settling on a level that occasionally shook the room (and rousted my 18 month old from bed). It’s a minor gripe, really, as the whole point of Blu-ray is to experience the best in terms of picture and sound, but, occasionally, I like to be able to watch a movie without waking up the neighbors. The sound design of the film is actually quite intricate, and its replicated here very well, with nicely isolated spatial effects and organic sounding environmental effects, resulting in a very cinematic mix that’s best appreciated at higher volume.
This two-disc set features both the rated and unrated editions of the film, a commentary track (on the theatrical version), a pair of featurettes, including the entertaining Law in Black and White -- Behind the Scenes feature, which is, appropriately enough, a black and white behind the scenes documentary, shot in such fashion as to highlight the filmmaker’s suggestion that Law Abiding Citizen is something of a noir film (which it isn’t). We’re also given a five-part featurette called Preliminary Arguments -- Visual Effects Progressions, which offers brief looks at five FX shots, as well as trailers for this and other Anchor Bay releases. All of the supplements are presented in HD.
Law Abiding Citizen fails as a morality play, and only marginally succeeds as a revenge movie, but, in terms of big, dumb entertainment, it’s a decent way to kill a couple of hours.I think the film would have been better served if it didn’t have to split its time between the two main characters, especially seeing as how Foxx’s Rice is such a one-dimensional bore, but, you know what they say; if ifs and buts were candy and nuts.... Anchor Bay’s Blu-ray presentation is solid, save for my minor audio quibbles, and the HD extras are a welcome surprise. Fans should have no trepidation adding this one to their collection, but others may want to give this one a rent, first, to see if Law Abiding Citizen doles out the sort of justice they’re seeking.