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Law Abiding Citizen Review

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by Casimir Harlow Apr 18, 2010

    Law Abiding Citizen Review
    So three masked intruders come into your house and terrorise you and your family, tying up, beating and threatening to kill all of you. What do you do? Honestly, nobody can know for sure until they are in that situation, but personally I would be proud of any attempt to break free and fight back. And if I could somehow get the upper hand, I'm not sure I would be capable of stopping myself from doing whatever it takes to make sure that those individuals never ever come back and threaten my family again. Of course this happened recently, in real life, and the guy was jailed (and, eventually, released under a suspended sentence) because he did just that. Sure, he chased the guy down the street and ground-pounded him there, but all that teaches me is that - in order to avoid being punished (in my opinion, unfairly) by the courts, it's best to mete out your own brand of justice whilst the guy's still in your house (or at least drag him back there afterwards and tell the Police that's where you did it).
    I'm sure we all like to think of ourselves as law abiding citizens but it doesn't take a great deal of research to find out that burglaries and home invasions are generally not the top priority for Police statistics. Which is what it's all about now. The public demand better 'results', so the Police are constrained and somewhat neutered by the fact that some crimes are just harder to solve than others. You're more likely to see a squad of police cars roar to arrest you if you're a homeless alcoholic and you try stealing a couple of bottles of sherry from Waitrose, than if you break and enter somebody's house. The reasoning? Well, they are so damn unlikely to actually catch the burglars. The average time it takes for a police unit to attend a household which has been burgled? Well, they aim to do it within 8 days. The logic: if you don't arrive during the commission of the crime, the likelihood of catching the perpetrators is slim, and consequently not helpful when it comes to public-friendly stats. So, frankly, I can see why some people don't always trust the law. You would like to think that you would find justice in phoning the Police, but it doesn't always work that way. Sometimes criminals get a better deal with the courts than innocent people because they know how to work the system better.
    So you may assume that the law would do you right if you were the victim of a home invasion, but some people may be too worried that the intruders - even if you manage to 'detain' them until they could be arrested - would just get a light sentence (or, worse still, get off thanks to a quality barrister who is 'just doing his job'). Who would really want their attackers back on the street? They know where you live. They may even know you testified against them. Few would like that hanging over their heads. Few would want even a remote possibility of their returning to do harm to your family. Taking this theoretical exercise one step further - what would you do if they raped and killed your wife and daughter right before your eyes? And then got off with a light sentence due to various legal technicalities? Well, that's exactly the position that the movie Law Abiding Citizen puts you in.
    Clyde Shelton is a happily married father, who answers the doorbell to two masked men, who proceed to beat and stab him, then move on to his family. They rape and stab both his wife and young daughter, right before his eyes. Although both men are caught and charged, ambitious attorney Nick Rice decides to accept a lesser plea from one of the felons in exchange for his testimony against his accomplice. Whilst this ensures the death penalty for one of the criminals, the other man - whom Clyde witnessed actually doing the killing and raping - is merely given a few years in jail. Although Rice is pleased to keep his 98% conviction rate intact, he does not realise the anger that he is cultivating within the poor man who lost his family to this animal. Clyde hates the injustice of the matter and will go to any lengths to not only mete out his own form of just punishment, but also change the very legal system itself, even if that involves blowing some stuff up to get there.
    Some are calling Law Abiding Citizen a cross between an episode of Law and Order and one of the Saw movies. I can see where they are coming from, but it should be noted that this still feels like an extremely original idea, irrespective of the themes it borrows from other movies. The movie does not waste any time in establishing the horrors that have befallen the bereaved husband and father, Clyde, nor does it hide the fact that the District Attorney, Nick Rice - his role to represent the people when prosecuting criminals and, effectively, find justice on their behalf - is not interest in justice or 'right and wrong'. All he's worried about is his conviction rate, even if that means telling Clyde - to his face - that the man who raped and murdered both his wife and young daughter is likely to get less than 5 years behind bars, and that this is the 'best outcome' he could hope for.
    What is interesting about this concept is that, clearly, we are meant to see some sort of evolution to both of the characters: Clyde's mild-mannered victim, angry at the system, is going to gradually morph into something of a force of vengeance, whilst Nick's amoral, career-minded lawyer is supposed to start to realise the importance of 'doing the right thing', whether that means not giving plea bargains to evil murderers and rapists, or whether it just means going to his daughter's school performances once in a while. The natural progression for the characters, however, is somewhat derailed by the Director's seemingly extreme dislike for the US justice system.
    I do sympathise with this because whilst there are arguments to say that the justice system in both the UK and US are far superior to many others around the world (in stricter countries more criminals may be convicted, but more innocent people also get swept up in amongst them), it is clear that the public is becoming more and more aware of the flaws in the system. The reality is that defending criminals has become nothing more than a sport for 'good' lawyers (who cannot really turn down cases where their clients are guilty because they'd end up getting no more work) and that the job of the prosecution is generally severely hampered (in much the same way as the job of the police) by bureaucracy, statistics, results and a seemingly endless litany of rights that suspects/defendants have, which appear to be paramount to the rights of the victims in the cases.
    So, whilst F. Murray Abraham probably set out making a standard movie where the good guy turns bad and the bad guy turns good, his final cut is much more grey and ambiguous. For the first half of the movie you totally agree with everything Clyde is doing. Or, if not agree, then certainly understand why he's doing it. His tremendous run at spreading justice culminates with a brilliant tirade in court, where he rails against a Judge who has just granted him bail. He's angry at being given bail because of a technicality, angry that this is what happens to violent criminals all the time. He asks her why the hell should he be given bail when he's about to confess to having killed a man? It's a valid question.
    At this point we find that Clyde's plan is far greater than just getting revenge against the people who invaded his home and destroyed his family. He wants to change the whole system so that, in future, hotshot attorneys like Nick don't go around cutting deals with nasty criminals just because they're 'difficult' to prosecute, and so that Judges don't continue to free clearly evil bastards because of 'technicalities' (I call this the 'Dirty Harry' effect, because of said film, which showed the flaw in the US - and not UK - evidence system, which bars admission of tainted evidence, or evidence procured in an improper fashion. Here in the UK, the evidence rules are not so ludicrously unjust). And when Clyde starts to take things to the next level, his actions become much harder to condone. His argument would be that he is changing things for the greater good, and the Director goes to great lengths to keep the audience on side with Clyde, despite his - clearly bad - behaviour.
    Nick, on the other hand, does not show a glimmer of hope across the entire movie. Yes, in the last five seconds he has suddenly, miraculously changed (maybe for the day, who knows?!) but up until that point his character is one that audiences will find very difficult to like. It takes him the entire two hours of the movie (and over ten years in story terms - a time lapse which is never properly addressed in the two central characters, who, in all that time, appear to have only changed in terms of facial hair) to even question whether or not his actions were wrong. It takes him all that time to question the immorality of his desire to keep a high conviction rate - at all costs. And, it could be argued, had he not been so stubborn, arrogant and ambitious, or had he at least grown a conscience at some stage, Clyde may not have had to go so damn far. This is clearly what the Director wants: audiences to hate lawyers, hate the system, and side with any victim who pushes the boundaries in an effort to change it.
    Of course the plotting is pretty ludicrous after the first act. The home invasion, prosecution and plea bargain all reflect what actually could happen (quite accurately, according to some of the extras, and I'd second that). Even the surprise state execution and elaborate escape-and-torture sequence work well enough, or are at least slick enough for you to suspend disbelief. And the cleverly played dialogue between Clyde and Nick when he offers up a 'confession' will likely have any budding lawyers out their smirking at Clyde's clever wordplay.
    But after Clyde goes all 'Prison Break' on the proceedings, his Saw-style traps laid out perfectly to teach the entire City a lesson in true justice, things get pretty absurd. That said, it is all so wonderfully entertaining - in a needlessly gruesome but viscerally compelling kind of way - that you stop questioning how improbable it all is, and just sit back and enjoy the ride. In fact the biggest flaw in the movie is not the fantastical narrative, but the impossible ending. It just makes no sense. Yes, it is designed to fit into the whole 'justice' theme of the plot, but the reality is that it turns Nick into Clyde for a couple of minutes (aside from the logistics of the situation itself). And that is not the point to Nick's character development - he's not supposed to become a vigilante, he's supposed to learn to respect the law and what's 'right and wrong', surely? It's a terrible ending. Impossibly ludicrous (and not in an entertaining kind of way, more in a crowbarred-in kind of way), out-of-character and quite unsatisfying in my opinion. I'd have probably voted for a more Saw-style approach to the ending.
    Aside from the imaginative and fairly original concept, the best thing about this movie has got to be Gerard Butler's Clyde Shelton. Butler was pretty shouty in the epitome of style-over-substance that was 300, and has not really captured my interest in anything he's done over the last couple of decades. Sure, he's not a bad actor by any standards, but he's more like a reliably average actor, rather than one who is actually good. I've never seen him stretched by the material - and consequently have never seen him give a noteworthy performance, which led me to wonder whether he even had one in him. The last movie I watched with him was Gamer a couple of weeks ago, which is just about the worst movie I have seen thus far this year (and this is coming from somebody who enjoyed Death Race and still watches Seagal films) so it was a real surprise to see what he had to offer in this movie. Don't get me wrong, this isn't an Oscar performance or anything, it's much more like the kind of fun, multi-dimensional offering that we got from Travolta in Face/Off (where he got to be himself, and then switch to play a wacky over-the-top Nicolas Cage). Clyde's change from mild-mannered victim to justice-seeking monster is perfectly captured by Butler, and I would argue that this is his best performance to date. It is certainly the most interesting character that he has ever played. And to think that he was originally slated to play the attorney role! Thankfully they never went down that road.
    Arguably Jamie Foxx has the tough end of the stick. He's a charismatic and charming actor who has shown some significant range over his film history, but I think he often gets lumbered playing more limited roles just for the paycheque. It's still nice to see him in things like the guilty pleasure action-fest Stealth, or the overly-preachy and patronising (almost Team America-played straight) thriller that was The Kingdom, but you can see that he has much more in him. Here, his role as the ambitious attorney Nick, who neglects his family, is utterly one-dimensional and simply does not give him any room to manoeuvre over the entire course of the movie. He is also extremely difficult to like at all, so you find yourself - by default - siding with Gerard Butler's Clyde, even beyond the point where his actions become acceptable. When he transforms into something akin to John Kramer from the Saw franchise, you still love the guy, and really don't like Foxx's slimy lawyer one bit.
    I wonder whether his character was always painted this way in the early drafts of the script, because the back cover of the Blu-ray - and DVD - has a blurb about the plot which, incorrectly, states that Nick was 'forced' to make a deal with the suspect in the case. In the final cut, his boss actually tried hard to persuade Nick to take the case to trial, and it was Nick himself who could not be bothered to prosecute this 'child murderer' because it might affect his hit rate. Now, had the original story shown Nick to have been forced into this plea bargain arrangement, perhaps his character would have had a more sympathetic streak which could have been developed as the movie progressed. As is, he's impossible to like and you could totally see why somebody would want to proverbially slap some sense into his arrogant self.
    More avid film fans may be able to spot a whole bunch of familiar faces and shout 'I remember that guy from...' on numerous occasions throughout the film, which is simply packed with bit-part actors in small supporting roles. Bruce McGill plays Nick's boss, a D.A. who actually has a conscience, and you may or may not remember him from the likes of Van Damme's Timecop and the Tom Clancy/Jack Ryan movie The Sum of All Fears. Stalwart actor Colm Meaney (Con Air, Layer Cake, Snatch) plays one of the police detectives investigating the crimes involved in the story, alongside Michael Irby (from the vastly underrated and unnecessarily cancelled TV show, The Unit) as his partner. Leslie Bibb (the reporter girl who Robert Downey Jr seduces in Iron Man) plays one of the junior attorneys working under Nick, whilst 24's own ex-President Charles Logan, Gregory Itzin, plays a prison warden. It's a colourful cast who all work well to provide a more entertaining flick.
    Law Abiding Citizen has an interesting premise which, whilst not quite carried through in a deep and meaningfully philosophical way, still gives an otherwise fairly standard revenge movie an extra dimension, making it feel fresh and remarkably engaging. The damn thing does eventually pile-drive its way into preposterousness, and may require some serious suspension of disbelief, but - aside from a thoroughly ludicrous (and out-of-place, even by the far-fetched standards of the rest of this story) conclusion - it remains an extremely entertaining thriller throughout its runtime. Part Saw, part Prison Break and part Law and Order, Law Abiding Citizen has enough going for it to warrant checking it out and, despite the massive twists (hint: avoid the spoiler-ridden trailer) probably has a fair amount of re-watch value to it. Not a great movie, but far from bad one. Recommended rental.