Law Abiding Citizen

Posted on February 3, 2010 at 8:00 am

This is not just a bad film; it is a despicable one. The slim but highly profitable torture porn genre has now begun to permeate major studio films directed at a general audience and the result is this dim-witted thriller that purports to have some legitimacy beyond serving as an excuse for full-on butchery. It does not. This is the “Saw”-ification of mainstream films.

Clyde (Gerard Butler of “300” and “Phantom of the Opera”) is quickly and very briefly established as a loving husband and father and then five minutes into the film two intruders come into the house, knock him out, and rape and murder his wife and little girl. Later, a slick prosecutor named Nick (Jamie Foxx) makes a deal that gives the worst of the two offenders a reduced sentence while his partner is sentenced to death. The execution goes wrong and the death is agonizingly painful. And the other offender, released from prison, is captured and subjected to excruciating torture (described in excruciating detail) before he, too, is killed. It turns out that Clyde has not just a motive for revenge; as a former highly trained government operative, he has the means. And he is just beginning.

It is supposed to be an intriguing cat-and-mouse game, but the fun of those stories is putting together the pieces of the puzzle and seeing the bad guy out-smarted. But there is nothing smart here, much less out-smart. The screenplay is so lazy that it cannot even decide who Nick works for, the District Attorney (local), the Justice Department (federal), or both. He also seems to be moonlighting as a detective, leaving the courtroom behind as he races into dark buildings without calling for any back-up. Because Clyde’s character has suffered so profoundly and the bad guys are so over-the-top despicable, we are supposed to find some satisfaction in their hideously painful deaths. But we’re supposed to be on Nick’s side, too. He may be a little too slick, but when the body count starts to pile up and Clyde threatens to kill “everyone,” we’re back on the side of law enforcement, previously portrayed as ineffectual and pragmatic to the point of moral compromise.

Revenge is such a reliable plot engine that it is hard to mess it up. Think of the purity of the first “Kill Bill.” But in this film, the details of the torture as entertainment, the sheer pointless excess of the carnage in the context of what purports to be a drama, and then the literal over-the-top ending that once again undercuts everything we have been asked to believe is more than exploitative; it is depraved. Viola Davis adds some class and dignity to the film as the frustrated mayor, like a visitor from another film, maybe another world. But then we are back to the phony sanctimoniousness of this film, with its final insults the idea that even upholders of the law are entitled to cause massive destruction and put lives at risk for payback and that all of this carnage is justified as a reminder to be a better daddy.

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Action/Adventure Crime Drama

25 Replies to “Law Abiding Citizen”

  1. Nell,
    Why do people like these movies? What do you think? Is it vicarious enjoyment of intense and realistic violence? Why do the endings seem SO phony? Imagine a hardcore porn flick that ends with a stern speech by a member of the clergy, reminding us of the evils of pornography.

  2. My name, have you seen the movie? Are you a fan? Did you work on the movie? Can you explain your views or do you somehow believe that insult is argument? I welcome your comments, but please remember that the rules of this site prohibit abusive remarks, so try to do better next time.

  3. I’d love to hear what you think about this one, Andy. I believe that they were trying for a “Silence of the Lamb” vibe in this one, with a law enforcement guy who has his own issues chasing after a super-brilliant guy who kills lots of people. That’s fine — there have been boogyman stories for thousands of years; it’s a way to help us make our fears concrete and manageable. And I enjoy a good, imaginative thriller as much as anyone. But as you say, this one has a deeply hypocritical feel. And the ending is supposed to be satisfying, but it is just offensive?

  4. Rock on Nell! I am glad to see someone see this movie for as bad as it really is.
    The acting is good, that is the only upside I saw to this. That is the only reason I don’t agree with the “F” rating but wait for this to show up on the pay channels.
    What Butler does is too far fetched for the overall script. He knows way more than what is shown to make the story believable. There were plot holes bigger than holes in swiss cheese.

  5. Thank you for the review. Both Jaime Fox and Gerard Butler are excellent actors, so its too bad they’re involved in this one.

  6. Thanks, Anne. If you want to see a great Gerard Butler film, try to get “Dear Frankie.” He is great in that one. I hope everyone in this movie gets a better script next time.

  7. Nell,
    Ok, Silence of the Lambs– there was gross stuff in that, really horrible stuff, but I don’t think anyone in their right mind was meant to revel in that. But there is a sub-genre in horror, revenge flicks and thrillers where reveling in the violence and cruelty IS the point. This kind of movie is usually not very good, but even if it is, I, for one, can’t enjoy it on any level. At the end of these movies, as a sort of cleansing device, we’re supposed to get a reminder that we (the viewer, the audience, a character, the filmmaker) are morally above what happened in the film. This is unnecessary in Silence of the Lambs, because we never shared in the violence to any extent.
    In a movie like Kill Bill, the blood-letting is so over-the-top and absurd and stylized that we are detached– no one would dream of imagining that this is really happening. In the Boogieman type of movies, there is something disturbing (and fun, often) in the chase. An evolutionist would say that this kind of movie connects us to our ancient past, as prey.
    Anyway, at some point, what happens on the screen can repel a viewer to the point that the movie is just not enjoyable or rewarding on any level.

  8. Well put, Andy. The director of this film completely lost touch with what audiences would find satisfying even though, as you said, movies like “Kill Bill” (which I liked very much, especially the first one) and “Silence of the Lambs” found a way to portray terrible violence in a way that served the story rather than distracting from it.

  9. Before reading your review, i had never even heard of this movie. (though i know now that i will definitely not be watching it)It sounds like a cheap knockoff of other movies like Taken, Felon, and Man on Fire, though I could be wrong. But I did mean to ask you, did you mean that the movie actually shows on-screen the guys raping a young girl and her mother? That just makes me sick, why on earth would anyone want to watch a movie like that?

  10. Thanks, Allyson — the actual act is not depicted but it is clear what is happening. And there is a very explicit discussion of the most horrific torture imaginable. I was sorry to see the movie made over $20 million this weekend.

  11. This was really fine movie. I am a lawyer and I really like this movie as I know true life of some of lawyers and I hate to tell about that. Many people sold out for money and betrayed their evidence. When helpless people lost their faith about law they begin to get law in to their hand. It is normal thing but it can be dangerous for every one. So better be honest. There will not be any crime in future.

  12. Thank you for giving this movie an “F.”
    Butler and Foxx should be ashamed of themselves. And the director has done far better work before.
    What were they all collectively thinking?

  13. Thanks, Christian. I think they were thinking that the “Saw” and “Hostel” movies mean the audiences want this, but the context is so wrong for that intensity of violence and the legal and moral issues (as you point out on your site) are so skewed that the result really is appalling.

  14. Thanks for your review, Nell. My husband, son (HS freshman) and I were going to go see it based on the trailer – and we do like Gerard Butler as an actor – but looks like it’s Vampire’s Assistant for us this weekend.

  15. A much better choice, Melody! I’d love to know what you think of “Vampire’s Assistant.” And I’m very glad you’re skipping this one.

  16. I thought Law Abiding Citizen was a great movie. It’s hollywood at it’s finest. HAve any of you actually watched the butcher scene in the warehouse WITHOUT turning away at THAT moment?? If you did you would see that THEY DON’T SHOW ANYTHING, OR EVEN PRETEND TO SHOW ANYTHING GORY. The directors are counting on the audience looking away or closing their eyes at that point. The Scene cuts away at the moment the saw is coming down. It’s wonderful how movie makers can make the mind eye see anything they want by building it up with the soundtrack and camera angles. The entire move is faux violence.
    The movie gets an “A” in my book. Great job.

  17. Thanks, Tim! I am always glad to hear from people who see more in a movie than I do.
    I did not look away at that scene. But the movie depicted some horrific acts, whether they were on-screen or just described — and it depicted them as justified and legitimate. There was plenty of real violence on screen, including the last 15 minutes which were, to me, preposterous. But it sounds like we were looking for different things and that you were able to get the entertainment value from its ability to make you think you saw more than you did, so in that sense it succeeded. Thanks again!

  18. What!!?
    There is no rape scene – implied but not explicit, and ” . . . excruciating pain . . . excruciating detail . . “. The scene with the saw is briefly heard and never seen – what’s graphic is the description of Clyde’s planning as to the adrenaline, normal saline (though LR or Lactated Ringers would a more apt fluid), mirror and video contribute to horrifying the viewer and extending the bad guy’s life while Clyde extracts his revenge.
    This is a great movie – until the end as the “anarchist” finale isn’t the character of Clyde. Clyde’s ending seems trivial after watching (from my point of view) the progress of his “teaching” of Nick who at no time had sympathy from me.
    This movie may have potent underlying messages in regards to the increasing failure of our judicial system to protect the family and “rewards’ those who break our laws. Also evident is that those who take the law into their own hands may have to make gradually elevated decisions that where in the beginning all seemed well, but as this progresses we can see the unraveling.
    Again, great movie, zero compassion for the DA, prison warden and the defense atty – in fact, Nick should have suffered much more as he inherently is the cause for this damage.
    Be well, Jon

  19. Thanks for the comment, Jon, and for your good wishes. I see that we agree that the ending was outrageous — for me, that took the film from a D to an F. If the judicial system is failing to protect families, the answer is clearly not to destroy more families to make that point. But I am always glad to hear from someone who sees more in a movie than I do, and I send you my good wishes as well. I hope you return to let me know what you think of the other movies you see.

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