Law Abiding Citizen

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Two good actors, Jamie Foxx and Gerard Butler, are wasted in "Law Abiding Citizen," a silly and preposterous thriller directed by F. Gary Gray.  Trying to be a "relevant" legal procedural, a suspensefully dramatic prison drama, and ultra-violent revenge tale, but not satisfying on any of these levels, the film should be dismissed by most critics before getting released by Overture this Friday, October 16.

As bad as Gray's last film, "Be Cool," was, at least it had some good moments, some evidence of proficient moviemaking, all of which are missing from "Law Abiding Citizen," which may be the lowest point in the directing career of Gray, the same director who made "Set It Up" and "The Italian Job." 
 
It's not entirely the fault of Gray, usually a more reliable director, with good commercial instincts of how to tell a story in a visually suspenseful and compelling way. The movie is severely hampered by the poor screenplay from Kurt Wimmer, who penned the equally weak and unbelievable crime-revenge tale, "Street Kings," starring Forest Whitaker and Keanu Reeves, though the latter was more superficially entertaining.
 
In one of his least creditable performances to date, Gerard Butler plays Clyde Shelton, an upstanding family man whose wife and daughter are brutally murdered during a home invasion in the very first scene of the film.  When the killers are caught, Nick Rice (Jamie Foxx), a self-satisfied hotshot Philadelphia prosecutor, is assigned to the case. In what will amount to a major error—and yet another bad scene–Nick offers one of the suspects a light sentence in exchange for testifying against the accomplice.
 
The plot then jumps ahead to ten years later. The man who got away with murder is found dead and Shelton admits his guilt in a rather cool and detached mode. Before long, Shelton issues an improbable warning to Nick, fix the flawed justice system that killed my family, or key players in the trial will die, one by one.
 
Hard to believe, but Shelton means what he says. Following through on his threats, he orchestrates from his jail cell a series of spectacular assassinations that could not be predicted, let alone prevented.
 
In the post 9/11 climate, it doesn't take long for people to get paranoid. Indeed, soon, the whole city of Philadelphia is gripped with fear as Shelton’s high-profile targets are slain one after another and the authorities are powerless to halt his terror, all of which, mind you.
 
Conforming to the most elemental conventions of crime-revenge dramas, "Law Abiding Citizen" then suggests that only one man, Nick, can stop the killing, and that to do so he must outwit the brilliant sociopath in a harrowing battle of wills, in which no mistake can be tolerated, because n the smallest misstep leads to yet another death.
 
With his own family now in danger, Nick finds himself in a desperate race against time facing a deadly adversary who's smarter than he is for he always is one step ahead of him, but two steps below our intelligence as spectators.
 
The law-abiding citizen of the title, Shelton is meant to be an ordinary man whose life was changed forever by a horrible random crime.  He puts all his hopes in Nick Rice and the system, hoping the criminals will be properly punished. When that doesn’t happen, because Nick is more concerned with his career, Shelton feels abandoned, a lost soul.  What's a guy to do? He resorts to his monstrous skills and inhuman tenacity to ensure that the system that had failed him is brought to its knees–literally.  And so, not one person involved in the original case is left untouched, especially not Nick.  
 
The wannabe cat-and-mouse movie posits Shelton and Nick as two warriors in a head-to-head collision. Despite the fact that they’re out to destroy each other, you're led to believe that there’s certain respect and mutual understanding, but there is no real evidence for that on screen.  At one point, Clyde tells Nick is that this could just as easily be him, occupying the same situation, but like the rest of the dialogue it's just meaningless verbiage, and this kind of ambiguous bonding doesn't belong in such a picture.
 
(What were the filmmakers thinking? That they are doing a classic Hitchcockian suspense-thriller, such as "Strangers on a Train" or "North By Northwest," in which the hero and villain share some physical and mental attributes in common and there's fine, crossable line between the two).
 
Moreover, in its confused and incoherent conception, the movie tries to have it both ways, depict Shelton as both a victim and a monster.  Indeed, the overwrought, sleazy movie tries to appeal to the viewers' primal (and primitive) by pretending to examine seriously a system of "blind justice" and by elevating a lone, semi-mythical survivor, who will stop at nothing to avenge his lost loved ones.
 
Too bad that after deservedly winning the Best Actor Oscar for "Ray," the enormously talented Jamie Foxx has mostly made bad movies, either artistically and/or commercially ("The Soloist" is the latest one in the series of poor choices). 
 
As for Gerard Butler, he may be overexposed at the moment, having appeared in three pictures this year alone (including the dreadful romantic comedy "The Ugly Truth"), and his limitations as an actor are beginning to be more and more noticeable.
 
End Note
 
Thematically speaking, "Law Abiding Citizen" echoes vaguely some of the issues depicted in "Cape Fear," in both the 1962 Lee. J. Thompson and the 1991 Scorsese versions, which are far superior to Gray's picture.