By the time the title flashes on the screen, fractured white letters on a black rectangle, we’ve already witnessed a robbery, an attempted rape and two murders. Then again, in thrillers like Law Abiding Citizen, unpredictable in thoroughly predictable ways, you expect that kind of trick. But for the handful of you who still believe in the Easter bunny, let’s make it clear—many, many, many laws are broken in this movie.
Not that the title is inappropriate. The multiple meanings, pursuit and intent of the law—and those who profess to uphold it—form the cerebral cortex of Law Abiding Citizen (at least, the parts of it where no one gets blown to bits). Jamie Foxx, as Nick Rice, is a young, handsome, pitch-perfect lawyer with a great conviction rate and an eye on the district attorneyship. You know he’s good at his job because his suits are impossibly well-tailored and he likes to converse while descending big marble staircases. Can’t go wrong there.
Gerard Butler plays the victim of most of the crimes in the first paragraph, Clyde Shelton. Rice settles, on Shelton’s behalf, for one death sentence and one get-out-of-jailbird, enough for his stats but not enough for Shelton. Thus with the revenge motive firmly in place, the movie transposes into a head-to-head between the two men.
Vengeance, like love, is an inexhaustible font for storytellers. Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) featured legendary knockabout Charles Bronson as a gunslinger whose brother had been hung. His relentless pursuit of the murderer righted that wrong, but also represented citizen resistance to corporate greed. Death Wish (1974) starred (who else?) Bronson as a Manhattan architect whose wife and daughter are raped and killed by street thugs. His vigilante justice satisfied his personal loss and stood in for the real class anxiety and bourgeois fears in 1970s New York.
Law Abiding Citizen, by contrast, lacks originality, a topical social context, and Charles Bronson, any one of which might have saved the picture. Shelton’s quest, while entertaining, seems wildly disproportionate to his loss and highly improbable (the script makes him rich just so he has enough money to keep blowing stuff up). In addition, his system of retribution has the same evils as the marble-encrusted one he despises, killing relative innocents and meting out uneven punishments.
Crucially, in a film rife with transgressions, Law Abiding Citizen adheres to every tired law of Hollywood thrillers—black guy vs white guy (Crimson Tide, Along Came a Spider); criminal mastermind in jail (Silence of the Lambs); races against the clock (Nick of Time, 16 Blocks); car bombs (The Pelican Brief); loved ones in danger (12 Rounds, Die Hard); lots and lots of police vehicles (The Fugitive, Enemy of the State).
Butler is no Bronson, but he delivers a much more energetic performance than Foxx, who merely squints and grimaces his way through the film. Although Foxx may have been thinking about the mediocrity of Law Abiding Citizen, and how he could recover from it… without breaking any laws of celebrity.