Clyde Shelton (Gerard Butler) is an ordinary, law-abiding citizen, enjoying a few minutes of hobby time with his daughter (Ksenia Hulayev, in a brief but enchanting performance), when the nightmare we all fear happens: opening the front door to greet a deliveryman, he is greeted instead by two burly men who stab him, stab his wife, snatch their valuables, and grab their daughter on the way out. Mother and daughter die. Clyde survives. I’m not sure which is the worse fate.
But the nightmare isn’t over. Now he has to face the criminal justice system. Nick Rice (Jamie Foxx) is an up-and-coming prosecutor with a conviction rate of 96%. There are only three reasons a prosecutor gets that high a rate: either the police are close to 1000/0 in arresting the perpetrator (fat chance), the DA’s office is viciously aggressive (often the case), or the DA is offering sweet deals to save the court some money and ensure convictions. Deals are bad for two reasons: bad guys get the wrong sentences, and innocent folks often confess to crimes they did not commit· out of fear that they may lose in court. Rice is a dealmaker.
Usually when two or more people are arrested for a crime, the first one to sing gets the deal and the others spend years in prison. That’s what happens in this story. Clarence Darby (Christian Stolte), is the one who wielded the knife and murdered the family. He cuts the deal, blaming his accomplice, Rupert Ames (Josh Stewart), who actually urged Darby to let the family go and just take the valuables. The accomplice gets the death penalty, while the murderer gets eight years.
The father gets angry.
The rest of the film is a tense, twisted dish of revenge. A brilliant inventor, Shelton spends ten years devising a plan to get back at everyone involved, including the judge, the police detectives, the DA, and of course the cocky prosecutor. And he continues his plans from an isolated prison cell, after being arrested for killing Darby. How does he do it? He must have an accomplice on the outside, but how do they communicate?
Villains are usually the most interesting characters in a play or movie, and when they are particularly smart or diabolical they are even more fun to watch. Add to that a righteous motive like avenging the death of a wife and daughter, and we can even like the guy – to a point. But Shelton’s techniques are often shocking, sadistic, and brutal. Fortunately director F. Gary Gray uses more dread than horror to create suspense, letting us squirm at the anticipation of a torture scene without having to endure watching it. Yes, there is some blood, copious spurts of it in fact, but those scenes are well telegraphed and brief.
“Law Abiding Citizen” is not a great movie, but it’s a good movie. After watching it, you’ll end up talking about the weaknesses of the judicial system and the overreaching arm of Homeland Security. Rice excuses his dealmaking with a dismissive, “It’s not what you know, it’s what you can prove.” The judge (Annie Corley) gloats at one critical moment, “I’m the judge – I can do pretty much whatever I want.” At another critical point the DA shouts “Fuck his civil rights.” And the head of Homeland Security shuts the entire city down, ordering people to stay inside their houses even though one specific group of people has been targeted and identified. Besides all this, you will see a fast-paced thriller with a kicking soundtrack. Break out the popcorn.