Law Abiding Citizen
Starz / Anchor Bay // R // $29.98 // February 16, 2010
Review by Casey Burchby | posted February 12, 2010
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Law Abiding Citizen begins as a serviceable, thematically-organized thriller that quickly devolves into a grotesque and implausible revenge fantasy/nightmare. After a relatively gripping 25 minutes or so, motivations and Law and Order-style moral ambivalence go out the window in favor of a pretty jacked-up series of events that turns Gerard Butler's character into an unadulterated maniac. This seems to have been an unintended consequence of the screenplay, which positions the first part of the movie as a moderately thoughtful look at the unintended consequences of justice poorly served.

Well-off engineer Clyde Shelton (Gerard Butler) survives a home invasion, but his wife and daughter do not. He stands by helplessly as Philadelphia Assistant DA Nick Rice (Jamie Foxx) makes a deal that allows the killer to go free while his accomplice gets the death penalty. Flash forward a decade. Shelton has taken it upon himself to eliminate everyone connected to the case, starting with the accomplice. Shortly thereafter he locates the killer and hacks him to bits. Imprisoned, Shelton proves no less dangerous or determined to exact vengeance. He proceeds to murder the killer's lawyer and several others in the DA's office. How he perpetrates these killings from within prison, no one knows. It's a race against time at this point, as Rice and Detective Dunnigan (Colm Meaney) struggle to put the pieces together and stop Shelton.

The screenplay by Kurt Wimmer holds at least a nugget of a good idea. The question is: what happens when someone of means and intelligence is dealt an unjust hand? How would such a person go about "setting things right"? Shelton's purpose, supposedly, is to prove that the justice system does not work. At least, that's how his path of destruction begins. But shortly, it becomes, simply, a trail to Hell, with Shelton killing people left and right. Director F. Gary Gray builds tension well, and we feel that Shelton's resources and sharp mind could cause abominations at any moment. But the film loses the thread of the interesting theme that it sets up in the first half-hour, and as Shelton crumbles into madness, character motivations become more simplistic and less compelling.

Foxx is well-cast as the arrogant Rice, whose chief motive for making the fateful deal with the killer of Shelton's family is to maintain a high conviction record. There is solid supporting work from Leslie Bibb as another ADA and Bruce McGill as DA Cantrell. These actors bring real feeling to small roles that would have made the picture more interesting had they been larger. As the psycho Shelton, Butler delivers a pretty one-note performance that relies too much on a particular tone of voice. The repetitive scenes of confrontation between Shelton and Rice suffer from the unequal balance of Foxx's more shaded portrayal and Butler's flat glowering.

Law Abiding Citizen delivers short-term thrills that maintain a certain level of tension until the picture's end. However, a number of twists do more than just strain credibility. The explanation of the murders Shelton commits from prison is ridiculous, and a bit of vague background about Shelton thrown in toward the end of the film (that he was some kind of "black ops" government contractor) is way too convenient and contrived to be convincing. Despite the promise of its initial premise, Law Abiding Citizen's generic thrills prevent it from rising above the middle ground it ultimately chooses.


The Video
The enhanced 2.35:1 transfer boasts a crisp image with very deep blacks amid a dark palette. This well-shot film (by Jonathan Sela) makes good use of atmospheric lighting and production design. These visuals are bolstered by a solid transfer that replicates the high-contrast look without any obvious digital flaws.

The Audio
The 5.1 Dolby Digital mix is active and punchy, adding much to the film's scenes of action and violence. Surrounds occasionally jump out at us from odd places, cranking up the tension when appropriate. Ambient effects are plentiful, underscoring the visual atmospherics in even the quieter sequences.

The Extras
A small handful of extras are offered here. There is an Audio Commentary with Producers Lucas Foster and Alan Siegel, which includes a revealing and interesting discussion of the movie's gestation from the production companies' point of view. The Justice of Law Abiding Citizen (6:17) is a short promotional piece that discusses the film's themes. Law in Black and White - Behind the Scenes (15:07) is a more traditional making-of piece focusing on director Gray. Preliminary Arguments - Visual Effects Progressions (6:52) takes us through a few key sequences in terms of the layering of visual effects upon shot film. The Verdict - Winning Trailer Mash-Up (1:06) appears to be nothing more than an alternate trailer. There is also the Theatrical Trailer (2:33), which is more polished.

Final Thoughts

Despite an assembly of able filmmakers and performers, Law Abiding Citizen winds up as a middle-of-the-road thriller that makes for a decent if unmemorable experience. Rent it.

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