BUTLER AND FOXX SCORE A GRAND SLAM WITH “CITIZEN”
“Law-Abiding Citizen” appears to be your average action revenge flick. Man has family. Family is savagely murdered. Man kills murderers in shockingly barbaric finale. Applause. End credits. But instead of the same boring story, the film delivers a fresh approach to an overdone and overworked plot gimmick.
The blissful family life of Clyde Shelton (Gerard Butler) is – in one single moment – destroyed when his wife and daughter are brutally killed during a home invasion. When the 2 killers are caught, all Shelton wants is justice. But when the justice system – specifically prosecutor Nick Rice (Jamie Foxx) – lets him down by giving the killers a deal, Shelton snaps and takes justice into his own hands. When both killers and several judicial officials are murdered, Rice is forced to play a deadly game with Shelton. With methods that are grimly efficient and diabolically brilliant, Shelton delivers an ultimatum to Rice: either fix the corrupted system that lets child murderers go free, or Shelton will kill even more people – including Rice’s own family. Now Rice must try beating Shelton in a battle of wits before the grieving husband/father takes his ultimate revenge.
Directed by F. Gary Gray, “Law Abiding Citizen” is a breathtaking success in the action genre. Everything about the film – which has a definite Michael Mann feel to it with frenetic cinematography, grim environments, and explosive action sequences – is nothing short of spectacular. The storyline is surprisingly creative, the characters are vivid, the dialogue is faultless, and the overall execution surpasses our expectations for average action flicks. Gray manages to sidestep all the genre cliches and makes it a first-rate rarity. It’s a film that is electrifying, compelling, intense, and – above all – a superlative cinematic experience. This is the best kind of action-thriller, one that could easily be ranked with “In the Line of Fire” or “Collateral.”
Gerard Butler is a revelation. Very few actors could have pulled this role off by hitting every single note necessary to create a complex character full of so much unimaginable sorrow and bottomless rage (we see this especially during his scene with Foxx where he learns that one of the killers must go free to convict the other). We can practically see these two emotions battling for supremacy behind Butler’s eyes. Butler’s astounding performance could be the best of his career, alongside “300.”
Jamie Foxx’s mastery and experience as a serious actor definitely shows. Nick Rice is a prosecutor who has lost all hope that the justice system works. He’s a man who wants to do the right thing but his hands are tied by the very system he serves. In his mind, truth doesn’t always prevail. Truth depends on who has the better lawyer. We can sense his helplessness. But he can’t do anything else. “This is just how the justice system works,” he explains to Shelton. “Some justice is better than no justice at all.” Although not as spectacular a performance as Butler’s, the story and the character compliment Foxx’s acting talents as effectively and efficiently as “Collateral” and “Ray” did in 2004.
The violence is shockingly brutal throughout the film, but (even though it shows practically nothing) never more so than the Shelton family death scene. It is not the scene itself that is so horrific, but it is what we don’t see. It is the knowledge that such brutality occurs so frequently in real life. What we do not see is much worse, with our imaginations composing something more terrible than anything Gray could have come up with. The violence may be much more gruesome later on, but it never manages to be as heart-rending.
The scene may not be what the average movie-goer wants to even think about, but it serves a very crucial purpose. It helps us truly understand Clyde Shelton. This scene makes Shelton’s horribly evil actions later on seem rational – if not justifiable. Without the raw emotion of that scene, the film would not have had the emotionally-charged backdrop necessary to make Shelton’s outlandish crimes seem plausible. So basically, that one scene is the backbone to the entire movie.
So can we say Shelton is the villain? Sure, he does villainous things. But is he what we would call a real villain? That is the truly amazing thing about the movie. It doesn’t even try to answer that question, but rather raises the much more provocative question of how far is too far? If we just saw our family butchered, how far would we go for justice and to what point is what we do wrong? Would that be enough to push us over the edge like it did Clyde Shelton?
The film doesn’t presume to tell viewers what to think in this regard. It doesn’t presume to tell viewers what to think. It’s all up to each viewer’s interpretation. There is no definite “good” or “bad” guy. But it may be better that way. After all, doesn’t having the characters be a little bit of both seem even more realistic?