GENRE: Revenge thriller
THE PITCH: After home invaders kill his wife and daughter, “tinkerer” Clyde Shelton (Gerard Butler) exacts revenge on Philadelphia’s criminal justice system, particularly district attorney Nick Rice (Jamie Foxx), who cut a deal to give a sleazy killer a light sentence. Clyde turns out to be more like the Joker in The Dark Knight than Charles Bronson in Death Wish.
MONEY SHOTS: Clyde uses a booby-trapped handgun to outfox an enemy. Clyde not only subjects a bad guy to a "Dexter"-ous punishment, but also sends a recording to Rice’s upper-class home. A remote-controlled robot wreaks havoc at a cemetery. One authority figure dies with such an out-of-nowhere surprise, I can’t possibly say any more.
BEST LINE: When Clyde holds up a box cutter to a killer and says, “This is for your penis … but we’ll get to that later.” Clyde also has an angry courtroom speech comparable to Al Pacino’s “You’re all out of order!” tantrum from And Justice for All.
WORST LINE: “Some justice is better than no justice at all,” Nick says to justify the initial deal, which sets off lots of hand-wringing over the compromised morals of crime and punishment.
BODY COUNT: At least a dozen, with fiery explosions making an exact tally difficult. A botched execution yields grisly results. One neck-stabbing produces a ghastly, almost giddy amount of spray.
FLESH FACTOR: A skank in skimpy skivvies sleeps on a mattress at a killer’s pad. Clyde surrenders in the nude to police, offering a rear view. Despite the numerous scenes at a dungeon-like prison, the film avoids a prison shower scene.
SOUNDTRACK HIGHLIGHT: Clyde blasts the Who’s “Eminence Front” in his jail cell partly to enrage his fellow inmates.
PRODUCT PLACEMENT: Nick and his fellow attorneys turn to Dunkin’ Donuts and Pepsi while awaiting Clyde to make good on his promise, “I will kill everyone.”
HEAVY ISSUES: As is the custom in Hollywood, the legality vs. revenge themes become hopelessly tangled. When Nick and his cop friend (Colm Meaney) say “Fuck his civil liberties!” and the Philadelphia mayor (Viola Davis) puts the city under martial law, we’re not sure whether to be aghast or delighted. Director F. Gary Gray doesn’t make a virtue of the ambiguity.
THE BOTTOM LINE: If you like films with inventive “kills” but are too embarrassed to see the Saw series, Law Abiding Citizen puts a thin veneer of respectability over the bloodshed. It’s hard to care very much about Jamie Foxx’s crises of conscience, but Butler makes a fine villain, kind of like a steak-and-potatoes Hannibal Lecter. This dude definitely doesn’t abide.