With the prevalence of televisions shows about criminal law and procedural forensics it’s difficult not to have a certain understanding of crime and punishment. The more people learn about the legal system the more diligent filmmakers have to be in presenting a believable story. The average audience member has become relatively savvy about his or her rights, so when a film based on criminal law has a layperson questioning the reality of what’s going on in the movie it’s typically not a good sign. Law Abiding Citizen could have been a great screed about the holes in the justice system, like Falling Down pointed out the cracks in society. Instead, the film aims low and goes for cheap thrills.
Clyde Shelton (Gerard Butler) is home with this family one evening when two men break in. What appears to be a home invasion robbery quickly makes a turn for the worst. Before blacking out, Shelton watches as one of the men stabs and rapes his wife and then takes his daughter to the back room to be slaughtered. When the criminals are caught, the case lands in the hands of hotshot Assistant District Attorney Nick Rice (Jamie Foxx) who has a nearly unblemished conviction rate. Shelton wants to testify against the men, but Rice – fearing a loss in trial – cuts a deal with the murderer to secure a short sentence for him and the death penalty for his partner. The murderer could be out on the streets again in five years. Outraged at being betrayed by the system, Shelton crafts a plan to destroy the system. After ten years of preparation, he puts his plan into motion, systematically killing every public servant involved in his family’s case. It’s up to Rice to stop Shelton before it’s too late.
Law Abiding Citizen asks a lot of the audience in order for them to get behind the story. First, when the murderer agrees to testify against his partner, what was to stop the partner from testifying against the murderer for the same deal? Second, did the forensics team mishandle their investigation so badly that the Rice couldn’t get a conviction based on the physical evidence that arose from the rape? Third, when a suspect is wanted for questioning in real life, the local law enforcement does not send out a full-tactical SWAT team to pick up the suspect. More likely, a pair of plainclothes detectives is dispatched to verify the suspect’s whereabouts during the time in question. So, when these things happen onscreen it becomes difficult to take the movie seriously.
Gerard Butler turns in a solid performance as Clyde Shelton. His helplessness during the attack is heart-wrenching and his grief is palpable. When he changes into his cold blooded killer persona later, Butler seems to slip in and out of character, but overall he gets the job done. Jamie Foxx, on the other hand, seems to be miscast in the roll of Nick Rice. He simply doesn’t carry himself in the way that one would expect of a District Attorney. That’s not to say that Foxx is incapable of playing this role; it just doesn’t seem like he’s done his research. One particularly telling scene is when Rice explains why he cut a deal with the murderer early on. Foxx repeats the same odd gesticulation over and over again as if unsure of what he’s saying.
Law Abiding Citizen has an excellent premise: When the legal system fails to deliver justice then the legal system should be scrutinized and adjusted. If everyone in the legal system is doing his or her job then justice will prevail – at least that’s how it’s supposed to work. Unfortunately, there are a lot of steps in the legal process where things can go awry. Evidence can become tainted. Public Defenders get overworked with cases they can’t win. High-profile defendants can afford expensive lawyers who have the resources to drown District Attorneys in paperwork. In short, various details and inequities prevent everyone from receiving the same level of justice. That should have been the point of Law Abiding Citizen. Instead, it’s about a man too blinded by his grief to see any good left in the world.
The unrated two-disc set comes with the theatrical release on one disc with audio commentary from producers Lucas Foster and Alan Siegel. The other disc offers an unrated director’s cut as well as a bevy of featurettes for visual effects and behind the scenes. The theatrical trailer and trailer mash-up are also included.