A father’s inconsolable grief over his murdered family somehow turns him into a torture porn villain with a grudge against lawyers in Law Abiding Citizen, an illogical, campy joke of a movie that suffers hugely in comparison to F. Gary Gray’s earlier fuck-the-injustice-system thriller The Negotiator. That film’s reheated cop clichés and admirable ticking-clock pacing are exactly what’s missing in Law’s coldly impersonal plot, which amounts to little more than procedural-speak and other varieties of hot-air filler material that serve to string together a series of grisly executions. The whole thing stinks of the rancid Saw series’s cross-genre influence right from the first scene.
Engineering brainiac Clyde (Gerard Butler) is tinkering with a microchip and trading smiles with his perfect wife and kid in domestic bliss when a pair of random Hell’s Angel’s types burst in with an ultraviolent agenda that includes gut stabbing and ripped-away panties for the wife, a presumably similar fate for the little girl after she’s dragged off-screen, and a full view of the whole horror show for the bound and gagged husband. His mortified gaze conveys the intended message: The cruel world will be forced to pay and pay for this individual tragedy. Soon expressing disgust at the plan of suave, careerist D.A. Nick (a low-energy, sulky Jamie Foxx) to let one of the captured perps skate in exchange for close-the-book testimony on the other, Clyde is overruled in his intransigence and left to stagger menacingly away from the courthouse and its uncaring, travesty-of-justice machinations.
After apparently using the subsequent 10-year interval to study his movie psycho betters like Seven’s John Doe, Clyde reemerges to murder both of his assailants in spectacularly convoluted fashion, switching the imprisoned one’s lethal injection cocktail for something skin-boilingly acidic and sawing the other bad guy to pieces in an abandoned warehouse while a full-length mirror hoisted overhead allows the kid-killer to gawk at his own living dissection. Clyde also takes care to leave behind enough evidence of his involvement to draw a SWAT team to his door, a planned surrender for which he unceremoniously strips naked in some kind of spontaneous proclamation of his own nuttiness. That sets the chessboard for a wave of shootings and bombings directed against the D.A.’s office and city higher-ups that he somehow masterminds from inside his prison cell.
Clyde is a strange, woefully underwritten character who giddily demands fancy food and iPods from Nick and his honey of a junior partner Sarah (Leslie Bibb) in exchange for info necessary to halt his various ticking-bomb scenarios, and then later blubbers earnestly about his own misfortunes and the failings of the law. As a result, Butler must offer a real gear-grinder of a performance, though like Gray he seems to be giving an honest effort despite the essentially impossible material. Gray’s core competency as a director, his ability to magnify law enforcement ordeals to city-in-crisis proportions with effective mobilization imagery and fluid outdoor photography, is frequently and fruitlessly engaged here to spruce up Law’s inert succession of political assassinations, but his frequent helicopter swoops and close fly-bys of Philly town hall’s William Penn statue do little to amp up the brotherly-love-itself-is-at-stake tension as intended.
The killings themselves are invariably too exotic and implausible in their methodology to provoke anything but the odd chuckle, with prime examples being an out-of-nowhere assault by a robotic trolley with a mounted .50 caliber machine gun on a convoy of city limos and another hit that’s actually too surprising and well-staged to spoil, while the question they’re intended to raise—who is Clyde’s accomplice on the outside?—is an uninteresting one in a film so otherwise unconcerned about engaging the intellect. If there’s an audience identification character at all in the film, it would have to be the laughably droll mayor (Viola Davis) who calmly asks her advisors at one point why they can’t just transfer Clyde and make him some other city’s problem. She doesn’t get an answer.