In one of the many interrogation scenes of “Law Abiding Citizen,” Jamie Foxx peers into Gerard Butler’s jail cell and asks him how his family would feel about the crimes he has committed. “My wife and daughter can’t feel anything,” Butler replies without missing a beat. “They’re dead.” Believe it or not, this is the film at its most profound. “Law Abiding Citizen” aspires to be a smart thriller akin to director F. Gary Gray’s last hit, “The Italian Job,” but it ends up an unintentional comedy through its ludicrous premise and prolific overacting.
The story chronicles a battle of wits between Clyde Shelton (Butler) and Philadelphia lawyer Nick Rice (Foxx). A decade prior to the film’s setting, two thugs murdered Clyde’s wife and young daughter during a home invasion. In the ensuing trial, Nick cut a deal with one of the murderers in order to secure testimony against the other. Clyde was understandably opposed to Nick’s plan, so he spent the next 10 years plotting his revenge on not just the two men who murdered his family, but also on members of the justice system who failed to prosecute them to the fullest extent. At present, Clyde has just been arrested, but his targets manage to keep dying while he is locked safely away in solitary confinement, much to Nick’s frustration.
Intriguing mystery lies at the foundation of the film’s story, but the way it actually plays out is unimaginative and amateurish. Midway through the film, it is revealed that Clyde used to work for the government, devising killing methods that worked automatically, with no need for human interaction. This explains how he knows what particular species of pufferfish carries the poison he needs or the intricacies of rigging a cellphone to explode as soon as it is answered. What a remarkably convenient explanation for his inexplicable homicidal ability! The later revelation of who is actually helping Clyde commit his crimes is so inanely simple that it is almost insulting to the intelligence of the viewer.
“Law Abiding Citizen” wants to be two totally distinct movies. On the one hand, it aspires to take a play from the “Saw” franchise and showcase various gruesome and elaborate killing mechanisms. On the other, it wants to be an incisive analysis of the faults of our country’s current legal system. Gray inserts a few not-so-subtle shots of a William Penn statue to imply a moral connection between the just colonist and Clyde. (The only real connection seems to be that they were both in jail at some point.)
One of the film’s most egregious problems is that it puts no emphasis whatsoever on establishing any semblance of Clyde’s backstory, nor can it decide which of the two main characters it wants to agree with. As hard as it tries to legitimize Clyde’s motivation by constantly referencing his family, their brief appearance on screen does not do enough to explain any of his actions. Other details of the movie are similarly disconnected. Why doesn’t anyone notice the military-grade rocket launcher Clyde has erected in the middle of a cemetery? Why does he strip naked right before the police break into his house to arrest him? The world may never know.
Both Foxx and Butler must grapple with some of the corniest writing in recent memory. Foxx spends most of the movie trying to seem authoritative and “sassy,” habitually dropping F-bombs just to make his intentions clear, and in one shot, coolly walking away from an explosion as if he deals with them on a daily basis in his law practice. Meanwhile, Butler makes a sad attempt at portraying a psychotic yet profound killer. When a cellmate asks him how he ended up in prison, Butler cryptically responds, “I did what I had to do.” Well, that clears everything up.
Parts of “Law Abiding Citizen” are enjoyable, but for entirely different reasons than were intended. There are some inventive methods of killing people and a couple of big explosions in an attempt to sustain excitement, but these fail to distract from the movie’s fatal flaws. Toward the film’s end, Clyde looks up at Nick with a smirk on his face and says, “It’s gonna be biblical.” Indeed, “Law Abiding Citizen” fails in a way that can only be called epic.