Brandon's Word: Law Abiding Citizen is an Explosive Thrill
by Brandon Lee Tenney
October 16, 2009
The grammar stickler in me has an immediate problem with Law Abiding Citizen. The words "law" and "abiding" are not supposed to be separate, but rather combined as a hyphenated adjective modifying the noun "citizen" like so: Law-Abiding Citizen. But when William Goss pointed out that, perhaps, the title's lack of a hyphen is intentional, my brain unfurled and drank in this radically tasty nectar. As Goss explained to me, it's not the citizen who is abiding the law, instead, it's the law that's abiding the citizen. And it's in this simple, innocuous distinction that the seed of my fondness for F. Gary Gray's film was planted. Now, I've no idea if the title's intention is as deep as I've dug, but what I do know is that the film certainly isn't. But it doesn't have to be. 'Cause it's a vibrant, satisfying expedition into a wish-fulfillment, vigilante fantasy.
Before I get into what Law Abiding Citizen isn't, let's discuss what it is. As stated above, it's predominantly a wish fulfillment fantasy. It's a thriller, sure, with a bit of social commentary sprinkled here and there in big globs that never blend, and some twists and turns and reversals, but it's really a depiction of those dark, strangely satisfying thoughts one might have after hearing on the news that a murderer or rapist was released from prison early for good behavior or on a legal technicality. Or maybe that's just me. Which brings me to the first impasse you may have to break through with this review.
You're either going to agree with--or at least identify with--the moral relativism presented in the film by Clyde Shelton (the character played by Gerard Butler) or you won't. If you're unable to enter the head-space of a man whose sense of justice is laying a man prostrate on a plank of wood, binding his head, arms, torso, and legs to said table, pumping him so full of adrenaline that he's incapable of passing out, cutting off his eyelids so he's incapable of clenching them shut, and making him watch in a full-length mirror hanging above the table as his limbs, digits, and other unmentionable extremities are slowly dissembled by a circular saw then, well, this movie isn't for you. But as fucked up as it may sound, whatever vigilante-esque psychosis that I've bubbling way below my surface, I am able to enter that head-space. Due to this alone, I quite liked what Law Abiding Citizen had to say, no matter how schlocky and bombastic it said it.
I should mention, albeit briefly, just what Law Abiding Citizen is about. In short, Clyde Shelton is the victim of a brutal home invasion that leads to the murders of his wife and young daughter. In a deal struck by an up-and-coming attorney, Nick Rice (played by Jamie Foxx), in order to preserve his stellar conviction percentage, the worst of the murderers is sentenced to a minimal stay in prison in exchange for the other murderer's whereabouts and eventual death penalty sentence. CUT TO: Ten Years Later. Clyde, an apparent inventor and genius, begins his plan of revenge to exact justice on his family's murderers, the members of the court involved in the plea bargain, and the justice system at large while attempting to teach Nick Rice exactly what justice really means.
Perhaps after that you can better understand just why it was easy for me to follow, understand, and intellectualize Clyde's reactions -- wanting to cause as much pain and suffering to the man that caused him so much, feeling like the justice system failed him, and wanting to change it for the absolute, if not the better. Or, again, maybe you can't. And if that's the case then this movie will indeed be horrifyingly grim and cynical. But, for me, Clyde's character is an interesting one to watch on screen, played surprisingly well by Butler. Sure, the film devolves into a city-wide Rube Goldberg contraption of vigilantism and most of its best moments are lifted from the likes of Seven, The Dark Knight, Saw, and Escape from Alcatraz. But there's something about its sheer ridiculousness and main-lined sentiments of pure Justice (with a capital J) that take the film beyond what any of those films did (and, quite frankly, beyond what any of those films wanted to do). The very deadly idea of vigilante justice, of which the likes of Batman will not subscribe. The personalization of the revenge kill that's beyond Saw or even "Dexter." Escaping from prison by planning to be put in prison. All of that provides a real dread and tension and puzzle-like quality to the film.
But I can recognize why some of you out there may not like this film, namely for all of the reasons I listed above in defense of it. The good guy, the family man, and, when it boils down to it, the protagonist is Nick. But, for me, Nick was never a character with which I could relate. So it was Clyde, who is an exemplary anti-hero, who I gravitated toward. Sure, his character suffered the blindness of rage and stiffness of an arranged plot on rails toward the end, but after ten years of planning this elaborate takedown of the justice system, it was apparent that he'd lost his mind. So maybe I'm sick and twisted and it's that that allowed me to enjoy Law Abiding Citizen, but I like to think that it's more so that there are real emotions behind each of the actions displayed on film, no matter how outrageous those actions are.
Warning: spoilers ahead! So, with all of this talk of just how ridiculous and over-the-top this film can get, who'd have thought that my most glaring critique is that the ending is a let down? The film builds so steadily, each action of vigilantism growing in scale and scope, that when, finally, Clyde's ready to take down City Hall itself by igniting a bomb beneath a major meeting housing every major state official, I really expected that bomb to go off -- to see his plan come all the way to fruition. And when it doesn't, instead of feeling relieved that the "good guys" have trumped Clyde's master plan, I was disappointed. The entire film, up until this point, revels in the destruction and Clyde's swift, brutal hand of justice. And then it transforms, as if to say, "Nah, we were just joking about that eye-for-an-eye justice stuff. The legal system isn't all that bad. So, yeah. The good guys! Hooray, good guys!" Well, fuck that. It made me yearn for someone with Alex Proyas-sized--or even original director Frank Darabont-sized--balls who would have blown up that building with everyone in it and *then* shown our antihero die tragically, with nothing more to fight for, finally able to be at peace with his long gone loved ones. That's how it should have ended -- with the literal and metaphorical destruction of the justice system, not the whimper of Nick's acknowledgment that maybe he wasn't all right, even though he'll never change.
So if you've a fondness for Batman, but are always, in the back of your mind, frustrated that his morals won't allow him to just remove the scum of Gotham for the streets permanently, then Law Abiding Citizen is for you. The characters are present just enough to pull you in and the emotion and thrills are what will set around you like wax hardening at the bottom of a candle. The film is a quick burn, it's a lot of fun, and it's as close to enacting your own justice on The Man and those who he lets fall through the cracks legally. And if you're fortunate enough to be of a sounder mind, without such flexible morals, harboring a distaste for moral relativism and equal justice served for crimes committed--no matter how deadly-- well, consider yourself fortunate. 'Cause you don't have to deal with this bloody darkness. But I commend Law Abiding Citizen for delving, however sensationally, into the darkness for me.
Reader Feedback - 24 Comments
Dang Brandon, pretty dark are we? just because of ones issues doesnt mean the world should suffer. If a man continues its selfishness just because Oh boy is hurt he thinks his pain is greater than the next guy????LOL, I like the critique tho!
Jonah on Oct 16, 2009
The grammar stickler in me quit reading after a mistaken use of who's/whose. Terrible review.
Greedo on Oct 16, 2009
The trailer for this didn't look toooo bad, though I think the whole, man working on from the inside story line has become really cliche. Also, the vigilante/revenge/justice genre has been more than played out within the past year (Taken, Harry Brown, Edge of Darkness, sort of Gran Torino, and I'm sure there are plenty more). I'm still just not very interested.
FancyMonocle on Oct 16, 2009
Dude!!!! I didn't watch yet!!! Crap... althought it's a great point of view, i do agree with you and i understand other's views. The community can't accept the unlimited justice concept, just don't fit into a society. just think, if you loose someone that you love, your view changes.
D. on Oct 16, 2009
everything from the trailer looks good except jamie foxx, the guy simply cant act..but ill probably see it anyway
harrison on Oct 16, 2009
Probably going to avoid it. The trailer looked absolutely ridiculous and so does all the advertising.
SlashBeast on Oct 16, 2009
Nice catch, Greedo. Time for me to commit seppuku.
Brandon Lee Tenney on Oct 16, 2009
Agree with Greedo. I didn't read the whole thing because I didn't want to have the movie ruined for me, but here we go: On top of the "who's/whose" mistake, immediately after you attribute a world of importance to the presence or lack of a hyphen (presumably to establish your grammar cred), you fail to use one consistently in the phrase "wish-fulfillment." Then you use "shlocky" and "bombastic" to modify "said" even though they are not adverbs. Then there's this: "The very deadly idea of vigilante justice, of which the likes of Batman will not subscribe." That's not even a sentence. Also, you don't subscribe "of" something. You subscribe "to" it. "...But I like to think that it's more so that there are real emotions...." What? I don't even know how to fix this one. Using "it's because," would be a good start. "...It's sheer ridiculousness...." "It's" is not possessive. And although it's not technically wrong, it's unnatural to make "I have" into a contraction when "have" isn't functioning as an auxiliary verb, especially in writing. Write all you want, but don't call yourself a stickler for grammar. That being said, I liked what you had to say. I was surprised that you chose to compare it with films like "The Dark Knight" and "Saw," instead of revenge movies like "Man on Fire" and "Taken," so now I'm excited to see it for myself and understand why. Thanks for that.
Bobby on Oct 16, 2009
Okay, okay you all. I do my best to write and edit myself. Alex does his best to edit as well. But the simple fact is: it's just not in the budget to have an editor on board full time. I know I set myself up for this backlash speaking about grammar at the onset of the review, but the fact of the matter is that the example I pointed out was merely to elucidate a point that related to a larger aspect of the film. I'll admit, there are more grammatical errors in the piece than I'd like there to be. You got me. And I appreciate you all reading it despite those errors and looking beyond them to what I actually had to say regarding the film. But, again, you got me. And in the future I'll do my very best to keep everything I write as error free as humanly possible. 'Cause as much as it annoys you, Bobby, having all of that pointed out burns my very soul like it's on a goddamned pyre.
Brandon Lee Tenney on Oct 16, 2009
UNACCEPTABLE. Just kidding. I harass the fuck out of you guys about your writing and yet, continue to subscribe to your site for its awesome content. And I'm constantly impressed by the fact that you not only deal with me being a dick pretty civilly, but you actually take corrections to heart and acknowledge mistakes. So... in all sincerity, I have three things to say: Thank you for working hard to provide bastards like me with an absolutely free resource for great movie info. I apologize for the ruthless and public nature of my comment, as well as any soul-burning I have caused. It was unwarranted. I'll shut the fuck up now.
Bobby on Oct 16, 2009
Dark...suspenseful...and people dying horribly. I'm in! I'll be an editor for free. Have a B.A. in Professional Writing. I do it for my friends for free, might as well make use of something I can have on a resume. lol Yes yes, we don't get a long often, I know. Just saying...
Tra la la la la di da on Oct 16, 2009
Man this guy can't take criticism... though he is very good at taking himself seriously. (1) Lighten up dude, there's no need to jab back at a disgruntled reader by saying you're going to disembowel yourself. That just makes you snarky and unlikable. (2) Take up Tra La La on her suggestion to edit for free. Sounds like a sweet deal. That is all.
Adrienne on Oct 16, 2009
I seriously thought that Gerard Butler's character was the good guy the ENTIRE TIME. (Spoiler Ahead) All of the sudden when that napalm bomb was under Clyde's bed I was like.... oh shit how's he going to save himself so he can kill the villian of the movie, Jamie Foxx. Jamie Foxx took Gerard Butler out of jail, and then beat him up at one point. then illegally broke into his property to try to learn more about him. I honestly loved this movie for the first half... thought it was brilliant and funny, dark, scary, and exciting. But my god did they screw it up so bad. Every time some bullshit legal worker decided to put themselves before they law, he killed them. Sweet, gerard butler is a badass, a hero. Who the fuck wants to watch Jamie Foxx watch his daughter play Cello? The guy is a dirty lawyer and who didn't really give a crap about the system, but hey at least he got promoted somewhere in there. I really thought it would end w/ a showdown between gerard and jamie where jamie's family's life was at stake. The only way this movie could have worked is if they were both killed in the end, cause in the end one was logically right (gerard) but still a total psycho... and the other was a dirty lawyer who let's crooks go free. fuck this movie.
SkywayCourt on Oct 17, 2009
All you grammar Nazi's are a plague that must be stopped. That being said the movie was very good until the ending, even with that let-down, I still enjoyed it.
RKB on Oct 17, 2009
I thought the movie was awesome, maybe except for the ending, but it was overall pretty decent.
Prem on Oct 17, 2009
The review hit the nail on the head, loved the whole movie up until the end which was just IMHO anticlimactic, I was really hoping for him to take out city hall. If the ending would have been different it would have been my favorite movie of the year. But it was worth seeing.
Neopuck on Oct 18, 2009
amazing movie with an amazingly terrible ending.
Brian Ricci on Oct 18, 2009
I wasn't sure if I wanted to see this film or not. Then your review covered the pitiless revenge and I wanted to see it. Then you told of the ending, which I would greatly disappoint me as well, and now I'll wait for video. It's a shame when an ending ruins an entire movie. I felt the same way about Heat. Loved the movie, pulled for the bad guys, hated the ending. Hated it.
Fed Up With Hollywood on Oct 21, 2009
are you nerds for real? bobby how long did it take you to sort all that out?
nodoze on Oct 23, 2009
I'm not really a fan of how these reviews are written, either, and it has nothing to do with minor typos or grammatical errors. The articles wouldn't need so much rigorous editing if they weren't crammed with excessive adjectives or flowery descriptions in the first place. It's not that hard to pare down self-serving redundancies if you don't write it that way to begin with.
Alexis on Nov 2, 2009
"Escaping from prison by planning to be put in prison" That's a spoiler, Brandon. I'm glad I saw the film already, or I'd be typing other things, much harder.
Jonn on Nov 6, 2009
The ending is bullshit...he dies in the end. Why not the DA instead.
nick sword on Feb 17, 2010
I know I'm a little late, but I just saw this film. Anyways, the ending was terrible like everyone says. One way I can see the ending being good is if Gerard sets himself up to be killed. You know he doesn't want to continue to live, but if sets up a plan so that he intentionally gets killed instead of Jamie Foxx outsmarting him would have made more sense. Then Jamie Foxx gets put in jail for life because he killed a man. That's my perfect ending anyways.
Thisisnotreallyjim on Jul 26, 2011
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