cast: Gerard Butler, Jaime Foxx, Colm Meaney, Bruce McGill, and Leslie Bibb
director: F. Gary Gray
105 minutes (18) 2009
widescreen ratio 1.78:1
Momentum DVD Region 2 retail
review by Jonathan McCalmont
Law Abiding Citizen
F. Gary Gray’s Law Abiding Citizen is a rare creature indeed. It is a mainstream Hollywood action film that appears to confront our assumptions about society rather than simply accepting them. I say ‘appears’ because in reality Law Abiding Citizen confronts absolutely nothing other than the limits of my attention span. It is nothing more than an intellectually vapid and incoherent exercise in nihilistic willy-waving.
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In other words: fuck this film.
Clyde Shelton (Gerard Butler) is a family man. He lives at home with his beautiful wife and cute daughter, and he makes a living as an engineer. Then, suddenly, there is a knock at the door and a pair of men shoulder their way in, knocking Clyde to the ground before ransacking the house. If this were not bad enough, the burglars discover Clyde’s wife and child and decide to kill pretty much everyone. Only Clyde survives. He survives to see one of his assailants get the death penalty while the other makes a deal with slick assistant district attorney Nick Rice (Jaime Foxx), allowing him to go to jail for only a few years.
Clyde is dumbstruck… surely the evidence and his testimony are enough to send both of the crooks to jail for the rest of their lives? Nick sadly shakes his head. The system is imperfect and the evidence is murky and likely to be overturned in court. Much less risky to make a deal and ensure that Clyde gets some kind of justice even if it is not the justice he feels he deserves. Fast forward ten years and Nick is attending the execution of one of the murderers. The perp is strapped down, the needles go in but rather than simply falling asleep, the criminal starts to scream in pain and bleed from his pores. Someone has swapped the chemicals. Could it be the other criminal? Or is it Clyde seeking revenge?
Law Abiding Citizen is clearly trying to set up something of a moral dichotomy here: on the one hand, we have a system that is clearly imperfect. Setup with safeguards to protect the innocent, the system has a tendency to generate false negatives, allowing criminals to slip by unpunished. These glitches in the system provide an evolutionary niche for lawyers who excel at gaming the system either by using loopholes to get their clients off or working around the system by plea-bargaining convictions for lesser offences. On the other hand, we have a culture that has allowed certain people to accrue the kind of knowledge and resources to effectively take the law into their own hands and mete out their own brand of justice to those that have trespassed against them.
So which is better, a compromised and corrupt system or no system at all? Who do we root for, the slick amoral lawyers or the vicious, self-serving psychopaths? This is an interesting and important question, and one that cuts straight to the heart of the way in which western civilisation has come to see itself. Indeed, the idea that our society is somehow irrevocably ‘broken’ is one that is gaining increasing visibility in both popular culture and political discourse. It is no accident that recent years have seen an explosion in the popularity of superhero films: films about heroic do-gooders stepping outside the law in order to solve problems.
Nor is it an accident that western governments have increasingly come to act as though civil liberties actively obstruct their attempts to solve society’s problems. Even more progressive and intellectual fodder such as HBO’s The Wire portrays American democratic institutions as utterly unworkable and, more often than not, more likely to cause harm than good. This apocalyptic vision of a society in decline is everywhere at the moment and it animates Clyde’s understanding of the judicial system. It pushes him to step outside the law and claim justice for himself.
However, despite being structured around a central debate, Law Abiding Citizen never actually challenges Clyde’s vision of the system or his need to step outside it. Indeed, the depiction of the lawyer is never anything other than negative and the film never explains why it is that the justice system has all of these safeguards in the first place. So when Foxx’s character is called upon to justify the nature of the system he represents he simply shrugs his shoulders and avoids the question. There is no spirited defence of democratic institutions. There is no calling into question the morality of the death penalty. There is no rejecting the idea that it is the job of the justice system to mete out revenge. There simply is no debate.
If Law Abiding Citizen presented itself as just a big dumb action movie then I would feel completely justified in calling it retrograde, empty-headed and politically naive. After all, films like Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, and Paul Greengrass’s Green Zone (2010), have shown that it is possible to make hugely successful action films that question cultural attitudes to violence and the role of the state. But Law Abiding Citizen does not present itself as just a big dumb action movie; it presents itself as an issue-driven film and for an issue-driven film to fail to engage with the issues is a mortal sin. A sin of cowardice, a sin of confusion, and a sin of idiocy…
The idiocy of the script is most obvious in the fact that the film is held together not by action sequences (which tend to be either unnecessarily gory or dull) but by a series of verbal confrontations between the two main characters. Had the script actually bothered to engage with the issues then these scenes would have been brilliant. Just imagine a series of tense verbal duels in which two powerful intellects circle each other, probing for weaknesses before attacking in a blur of wit and insight that cuts straight to the heart of the political system while the bodies stack up and the tension mounts. It could have been glorious. But instead it is dumb. Because Law Abiding Citizen has no intellectual substance, these verbal confrontations consist of nothing but pointless posturing and shouting.
Of course, shouting is not the same as arguing but it can serve as a replacement if the shouting is carried out by talented actors fully embodying well-drawn characters. Think of the diner scene in Michael Mann’s Heat (1995), in which De Niro’s career thief spars with Pacino’s edgy detective. Can you remember what they were talking about? No… But you can remember the scene. You can remember the tension. You can remember the energy. You can remember these things because Heat had a decent script and because De Niro and Pacino are not third-rate hacks who think that gurning is the same thing as emoting.
Law Abiding Citizen is a failure on every conceivable level: it is badly directed, badly written and badly acted. It is a pompous exercise in fascistic chest-thumping and macho posturing that is convinced that it is politically insightful. Much worse than that, it is deathly dull. The fact that films this bad continue to get cinema releases at the expense of more thoughtful films is nothing short of a tragedy. Fuck this film.