Step 1: You watch as home invaders rape and kill your wife and daughter. Step 2: The guy who killed your family goes free due to a flaw in the justice system. Step 3: You seek revenge. On everyone.
Sounds like a run-of-the-mill "vengeance is mine" movie plot. After seeing the 20% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, that is what I was expecting. I was anticipating a plot I’ve seen a million times: the everyman seeks vigilante justice when the legal system fails. Even the plot summary on IMDB states "An everyday guy decides to take justice into his own hands."
(WARNING: the following may contain some unintentional plot spoilers)
I was pleasantly surprised by the film, despite the grammatical error in the title. (It should be Law hyphen Abiding, not Law space Abiding. Sheesh.) Citizen starts off with a bang, like a baseball bat to the face. Actually it was literally a baseball bat to the face, but all things considered, I like the simile. The story begins through the eyes of the protagonist Clyde Shelton (Gerard Butler of 300) as he watches his wife die and daughter taken away. When the worst of the two criminals flops on the not-as-bad guy, we follow the case into court to watch the plea bargain play out, only to see Shelton in the background watching the evil dude shake hands with the prosecutor Nick Rice (Jamie Foxx from Ray, Collateral, The Soloist, etc). 10 years later, one of the two home invaders is at the end of his death-row sentence. The execution doesn’t go according to plan, and the murders (paybacks) begin. Shelton is arrested, thrown in jail, and continues to kill people from behind bars. Each escalating killing portrays a staggering work of genius and Rice (with police in tow) race to end the massacre and keep Shelton in prison.
Yet, to describe Law Abiding Citizen as the typical revenge flick overlooks some key elements.
1. The movie’s hero (anti-hero?) is not a normal guy. He’s a tinkerer (as one character in the movie states). With a little foreshadowing, the opening sequence shows him to be adept with electronics and robotics. As the story unfolds, we discover the guy is extraordinary, intelligent, and diabolical. While there is an element of righteous anger that motivates his revenge, there is also a mastermind design behind the brutality that could not be carried out by an "everyday guy."
2. Most revenge plots have one bad guy: the person who escaped justice. Once that person has been killed, the hero can carry on with their life in peace. Not this movie. The brutal killings of the two home invaders (the first one startling, the the second graphic – both disturbing) are just the start for this Citizen. The bad guys in this movie are not the people who first committed the crime, but the entire justice system. The courts are corrupt and Shelton wants to "bring the whole system down." So the scope of retribution span beyond the two thugs. It includes their defense attorney, the judge that threw out key evidence, the prosecutor that made a deal with the guilty defendant, the district attorney, the DA office’s staff, and the mayor. Whew. Talk about a hit list.
3. You’re never sure who to root for. At first we like Clyde Shelton. There is an understandable empathy toward his actions. We cheer him on as he tells off the judge during his bail hearing (people in my theater were clapping). We nervously laugh at his steak dinner and later at an exploding cell phone. But at some point, we no longer see Shelton as a grieving father, but a maniacal lunatic. Nick Rice is a workaholic who seems willing to sacrifice his family’s happiness for his own political ambitions. Throughout the movie he stands by his choices maintaining an "I did the right thing" defense when we all know he made the wrong decision. We want him to man up. Eventually we begin to see him as the hero. (I consider this to be great story telling as characters that are too perfect or too flawed are not believable.)
4. It bucks the traditional ending. The moment we expect (Shelton gets the same deal that Rice struck with the bad man at the beginning of the movie) never happens. We want Shelton to earn his freedom for a while, but then we begin to think he belongs in jail.
5. This is not a feel good movie. The first death looks like a clip from a horror movie. The second fatality is a sociopath’s dream. (We’re spared the viewing of the dissection, but we see the results and the gory details are described within the prison interview room.) The third killing is clinical. The fourth is excessively bloody and the next catches you off guard. The final body count is in double digits. The language is vulgar. The cinematography is sharp and gritty. The pace is unsettling and quick. This is not the type of movie you walk away from thinking "I’d do the same thing if a couple of drug addicts killed my family and got away with it."
My only complaint about the movie is the amount of detective work that Nick Rice accomplished. I understand there is a bit of research that prosecutors have to do to build their case, but Citizen had Rice riding along with the police to every crime scene, and to make every arrest. Well, that complaint and the bad grammar in the title.
Overall, Law Abiding Citizen is not one of the best movies ever made. But it is entertaining. And that’s what movies should be about. I give it 6 exploding cell phones out of 10.