You gotta admit that the American courtroom is now a familiar element of cinema’s vocabulary. Even as a non-US citizen I still know what Exhibit A-Z refers to, that it sucks to have your objection overruled, and that there’s always a surprise witness. 12 Angry Men, A Few Good Men, numerous episodes of Star Trek. You’ve probably seen it all too. But have you seen a defendant claim the judge takes it up the ass? Probably not unless you’ve seen Law Abiding Citizen.
Gerard Butler (300) is Clyde Shelton, a mild-mannered suburban inventor who has a perfect little family. It’s almost too perfect; his little girl makes him a “DAD” bracelet while the wife smiles on lovingly from afar. There’s no nagging about tidying rooms or queries about Clyde’s internet history. Before reality can spoil anything, the house is raided by two low-life dirtbags, Clarence Darby (Christian Stolte – Public Enemies) and Rupert Ames (Josh Stewart – Interstellar).
They tie up Clyde and his missus then start robbing the joint. Sadly, little Shelton Jnr walks in on the situation. Darby, someone who looks like a fat, crack-addicted Robert Patrick (I seriously though it was him until I checked the credits), claims kids like him, and he takes her into another room. Mercifully we don’t see it, but he kills her, mrs. Shelton and leaves Clyde for dead. But he survives and is compus enough to finger both Darby and Ames in a lineup.
It’s an open and shut case. Clyde even has hot shot lawyer Nick Rice (Jamie Foxx – Ali) as the prosecutor. He has a 97% conviction rate, so this shit must be a done deal right? Wrong. Some of the evidence turns up inadmissible, and Clyde’s own eye-witness account is brought into question. Not wanting to risk his high clearance rate, Rice cuts a deal with Darby. He testifies against Ames, claiming that he was the mastermind and the murderer. Darby was just along for the ride on Ames’ crazy train.
Ames gets the death penalty whilst Darby walks in two years. Clyde is livid, and the press eats up the pictures of Darby and Nick shaking hands over the deal.
Ten years later and Ames is still pleading innocent, even at his execution. Nick, now even more of a badass attorney, has a daughter of his own and is constantly getting in shit with the wife for working too hard and missing her recitals. He’s also still a soulless devotee to statistics and prestige, but attends the execution out of good practice. His boss, district attorney Jonas Cantrell (Bruce McGill – Collateral) and assistant Sarah Lovell (Leslie Bibb – The Midnight Meat Train) are also in attendance. Clyde is curiously absent.
As the various syringes of liquid are pumped in Ames arms, it’s clear that something isn’t right. Last time I checked, death by lethal injection was supposed to be humane. Not in this case. Ames starts thrashing around in pain, like when that dickhead in the Green Mile forgot to wet that head sponge when they nuked that prisoner. He dies with his veins all popping out like a body builder. Sarah is totally scarred (Ames was her first execution), and every else is freaking out. This wasn’t supposed to happen.
Detectives Garza (Michael Irby – Flightplan) and everyone’s favorite grumpy Irish character-actor Colm Meaney (in pretty much the same role as in Con Air) as Detective Dunnigan appear to quiz the shit out of everyone. Maybe it’s a prison dude gone rogue. No chance, says Warden Inger.
After some snazzy forensic work it turns out that the death liquid got changed for some even nastier death liquid. This is somehow linked to Ames’ old buddy, Darby. An anonymous tip off leads the cops to Darby’s shithole. But someone is also looking out for Darby; he gets wind that the police are coming and is guided away from the scene by some mysterious voice on his cellphone. He comes across a cop unawares, pistol whips him, then takes him hostage. They drive out to some horrible industrial estate and Darby orders the cop out. He pleads for his life; just another poor soul at the wrong place at the wrong time.
Darby laughs at the begging and pulls the trigger. The gun doesn’t fire. Instead of a bullet coming out the nozzle (c’mon we know how that shit is supposed to work) some little spikes come out of the handle. Spikes covered with poison! We’re doubly shocked and awed when the voice on Darby’s phone turns out to be the cop himself! It gets dialed up to 11 when the cop removes his silly little moustache and OMG it’s Clyde in disguise. DUN DUN DUUUUN!
It’s all been set up to get him. That poison he’s used? It’s a special toxin that allows the victim to feel and experience everything around him. They just can’t move. Perfect for Clyde’s vengeance-fueled needs. He takes him to an abandoned warehouse and ties him down to a chair. He then proceeds to scare the fuck out of him by showing him various implements he’s gonna use; scalpel for his eye-lids, chainsaws for his legs, pliers for his balls. All being recorded for future reference.
It’s at this point you think, Christ, Gerard Butler has gone mental. Killing the killers of his family is sort of justified. But all this shit? He’s even got a ceiling mirror so Darby can watch as Clyde cuts him up! Jesus Clyde, shit like that is only used for porn.
You kind of get the feeling he’s just trying to scare Darby. But he ain’t. He genuinely starts cutting him up.
Later, when some homeless dudes find the mess, Nick and the detectives get called in. Bits and pieces are everywhere. Darby’s head is left on a tray. Personally, I would have sewn it back together into some weird mess, sort of like Modulock from He-Man.
We got a problem though, as that warehouse is actually owned by Clyde. The dude has motive and opportunity. By time the police arrive at his house, he’s already stripped naked waiting for them. I don’t understand this. I mean sure it makes it clear you aren’t concealing some kind of weapon. But if I’m Joey Swatteam, first in the door, and I see a guy who has supposedly dismembered some crack addict, and he’s naked, I’m more likely to shoot first and ask questions later.
Anyway, they bring him in, and he kind of infers that he did it but nothing solid enough to get a conviction and Nick knows it. He get’s a total hard on for bringing Clyde down though when he finds out the home video of Darby getting minced has been sent to his own house and his little girl has watched it. He refuses Clyde’s offer for a full confession in return for a new mattress in his cell (back issues – I feel his pain).
It’s a shame Cantrell orders Nick to make the deal and they all go to court. It’s the same judge who gave the Darby sentence ten years ago, and Clyde manages to defend himself pretty well. He even gets let off. I mean there is no direct evidence supporting the murders, is there? He’s just a law abiding citizen after all.
From nowhere it’s all on it’s head when he starts calling the judge on how stupid she is. By quoting some ancient references, he, a violent murderer, nearly talked himself out of prison. She holds him in contempt when he claims she takes it in the ass. Nick would have laughed if he wasn’t so confused. Don’t worry readers, I laughed for him.
So he goes to prison once again. However, he has another deal to make. Hasn’t Darby’s old lawyer been missing a while? Clyde want’s a steak dinner and an iPod by a certain time tomorrow, otherwise the lawyer gets it. Unfortunately, Warden Douchebag delays things by triple checking everything. The deadline comes and goes, and when they do eventually unearth the guy (he’s literally buried in a box), his oxygen supply has run out. Clyde explains that if they hadn’t fucked with him, he’d still be alive. He still get’s his dinner mind you. A plastic spork is his only utensil.
Don’t worry though. During his steak dinner Clyde uses the t-bone to violently shank his cellmate. This is one of the more violent and surprising moments in the film. It’s kind of sad because the cellmate and him were laughing and joking and shit moments before. He might be in there for rape or meth dealing, but come on Clyde, he didn’t kill your family, did he?
He get’s dumped in solitary this time, where he can’t touch anyone. By this point Cantrell has got the CIA involved. Some shady informer type drops some intel on Clyde, telling them that “I’m a spy. Clyde was a brain. They brought him in when we failed”. Apparently Clyde was some super inventor who could out-think anyone, and was involved in all kinds of Mission Impossible wetwork. But seriously, he’s in prison now. He can’t do shit. Not so fast, says Jeff CIA Agent. If Clyde is in prison, it’s because he wanted to be in prison.
While it all seems pretty far-fetched, the judge gets her head blown off by a cell phone bomb during a meeting with Nick and Cantrell. How’d he do that? Clyde isn’t telling. Instead, he’s got one last deal to make with Nick: drop all the charges, let him go by tomorrow, otherwise everyone dies. Nick isn’t going to fall for that one. His beloved law and order wouldn’t stand for that. Nothing happens as the deadline ticks by the next day, but all Nick’s assistants die in car bomb explosions as they head for home, including the lovely Sarah.
Even during her funeral, Clyde sends some remote controlled death robot to fuck things up (remote controlled, we see, from someone at the cemetery – but who?). During the shoot out, the robot takes out Nick’s mentor, Cantrell. Now the mayor, Viola Davis (Blackhat) gets involved. She orders Nick to find out how Clyde is killing people from inside solitary confinement. Nick is gonna have to go in deep to crack this case, as Clyde is proclaiming that he’s gonna bring the whole fucking system to it’s knees…
Law Abiding Citizen is a high concept film with A-class stars and top end action effects. This makes it all the more surprising that it’s R-rated. But I appreciate this. Not only do you get the odd bit of ultra-violence but there’s also plenty of quality swearing too. I guess you could classify it as a mystery, a thriller or even an action movie. It has elements of all three. Above all though, it’s an indictment of the vulnerabilities of the US justice system.
And it’s just that; a system, and like any system there are rules. As Morpheus once told Neo, some of these rules can be bent and even broken. The best prosecutors can make circumstantial evidence look solid, while the best defenders can get stone killers off the hook. But they can’t necessarily do kung fu and shit. Don’t be crazy.
Nick is a good guy, but he’s also all about protecting his conviction rate, even at the cost of “true justice”. He abandons or refuses cases where he can’t guarantee a win, and in this case of Gerard Butler vs. Scumbags, he cuts a deal whereby one gets the death penalty and the other walks after 2. It’s not an ideal outcome, especially considering Gerard eyeball witnessed them kill his family. To me, to you, to poor Gerard Butler, it seems an open-and-shut kind of thing. But the DNA evidence is inadmissible. There is a chance they’ll get off. And Nick isn’t going to drop his 97% success rate over a grieving widower.
Equally, the judge who makes the agreement. She’s doing her job and despite common sense prevailing, makes some hazy calls that are totally within adherence to the law. She’s right, there is no evidence that Gerard murdered fake Robert Patrick, even if he confessed. It seems stupid, but it would be against the law for her to lock him up.
Gerard’s Clyde is just one guy who has fallen through the cracks of this system. Unfortunately for the system, he has the skills to come back and show it up for the farce that it is. And this brings a good dynamic to the film. Think about it. You have one former CIA dude, thirsting for revenge against the system, planning for years, building secret lairs and killer robots. That’s the resume of a Bond villain people.
But it isn’t played like that. Gerard’s plight is totally understandable, and his methods almost justified. Even Nick agrees in one scene, off the record. Bravo for getting that piece of shit Darby off the streets. Surely, that was your job though Nick. Butler is largely a good guy actor and his casting here is ideal. He’s not some mad movie bastard. As Jack Burton once said, he’s just a reasonable guy whose experienced some unreasonable situations.
As he slowly does more and more damage we do start to disconnect with him. Thankfully we begin to side with Nick much more as this dynamic shifts. Jamie Foxx is also really well cast. He has that kind of smooth smugness that is easy to hate. When his entire world is crumbling around him and he’s finally brought down to Earth, he becomes the hero. It’s really an interesting turnaround by writer Kurt Wimmer (Equilibrium).
Primarily, it’s Foxx’s character who changes. He learns that justice isn’t about stats and success rates. As Clyde tells him, “if you’d have tried and lost, I could have lived with that”. “No more deals”, he promises Clyde at the end, after the message has been hammered home. Personally I would have liked the final scene to have been Nick no longer in some big law firm, but a smaller one doing good work for good people. Instead he goes to his kid’s cello recital. Which is nice, I guess.
While we’re talking about things I would have changed, I felt the whole CIA angle was a bit silly. It really detracted from this good everyday guy who has suffered some terrible shit. Maybe director F Gary Gray (The Negotiator) thought it was getting beyond the realms of total possibility for a normal person to do what Clyde is doing. Or maybe they got scared implying that Clyde is just like you or I. If Gerard Butler can do it, what is to stop us from challenging the system in such a way? I like that second reasoning best.
In regards to the twist at the end (on how or who he was able to do things while locked in solitary), I won’t spoil it. I remember when I used to work at the video store, and stock room guy Doug told me about the film. He loved it, save for the twist at the end. Personally, I didn’t mind. It’s pretty out there, yes, but not enough to make the entire film come crashing down.
Look, Law Abiding Citizen doesn’t raise the same sort of questions as a film like Philadelphia (ironically, it’s filmed in the same city). Yeah, they’re both about some poor guy getting screwed by the legal system. And both Denzel and Foxx learn the error of their ways through the course of the film (Denzel’s homophobia, and Foxx’s scewed perception of the legal system). But Tom Hanks doesn’t kill a bunch of people. He just dies of AIDs.
Don’t be fooled into thinking this is some low brow exploitation nonsense though. It has a message, and makes you think what you might do in a similar situation. I don’t get how it’s so lowly regarded critically. But what do critics know? Fuck them. It has a bad guy with motivations you can understand, even condone. And as a high end American movie it also paints a bleak picture of a familiar system – the law.
I recently read this book called Homicide by David Simon. It was later adapted into a TV series of the same name, then remade again into The Wire, arguably the greatest TV show ever made. So it’s worth your time. To cut a long story short, Simon, a journalist in the 80’s attaches himself to a homicide unit for a year. His reporting is shocking, humorous, dark and unrelenting. I recall one chapter where they’ve got some scumbag bang to rights in court. And they do manage to get a conviction. But Simon also goes into detail about how approximately only one in four convictions only leads to sentences over 15 years. Most are knocked back to lesser sentences, cut down due to lack of prosecutable evidence or to make a deal to get someone else off the streets. It’s a grim picture.
Law Abiding Citizen paints a similar portrait. It shows us the flaws in the system. Yet it also shows us the consequences for challenging the system. Clyde, despite his good intentions, is also a bit mental. He ultimately is the movie bastard, and not the badass. He should have remembered Clint in Magnum Force; yeah it may be a stupid system, but until we get a better one, you’re gonna have to abide by the law. Get it watched.