The Popcorn Reel
Friday, October 16, 2009

Law Abiding Citizen

In Hell's Courtroom It's Prosecutor vs. Judge, Jury and Executioner

By Omar P.L. Moore/  SHARE
Friday, October 16, 2009     printer friendly

Jamie Foxx as Nick Rice and Gerard Butler as Clyde in F. Gary Gray's film "Law Abiding Citizen", which opened
 today in the U.S. and Canada.  (Photo: John Baer/Overture Films)

Either "Law Abiding Citizen" is downright preposterous or it's a brilliant film illustrating the deep cynicism towards the American criminal justice system.  However you end up viewing F. Gary Gray's latest film, it's an undeniably stunning, hair-raising entertainment that gives its audience maximum thrills and their money's worth.  Mr. Gray, who has a good habit of directing tense, taut, morality dramas ("The Negotiator") and action films ("The Italian Job") gets back to the morality tale with "Law Abiding Citizen" -- and what better place to set Kurt Wimmer's story but Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love?  Sports fans there are beyond passionate and fanatical -- they can be vicious but definitely not as vicious as Clyde Shelton (Gerard Butler), a man whose wife and daughter are murdered early on in Mr. Gray's film.  The fruits of justice have been denied Clyde when Philadelphia's top prosecutor Nick Rice (Jamie Foxx) plea bargains with one of the murderers.  Big mistake. 

Ten years pass and in true "who-says-you-can't-fight-City-Hall?" fashion Clyde, in full slow-burn mode, hungers for revenge.  In short order people turn up dead despite the fact Clyde has already been arrested for a brutal murder and thrown in prison. 

Mr. Butler is absolutely chilling as Clyde, unrelenting and completely detached from the roguish charm and sex appeal exuded in roles from earlier films.  He's diluted his appeal more recently, having been a gangster on assignment ("RockNRolla"), a vulnerable and misogynistic cad ("The Ugly Truth") and a manipulated game character ("Gamer").  Here he's manipulator and psychopath, brazenly pushing back against the system and stretching its gray areas to their limits albeit in the most lurid ways possible.  Mr. Butler even has time amidst Clyde's madness to bare his behind, perhaps a wink to the ladies that his sex appeal hasn't entirely left the building.  Mr. Foxx's by-the-book Nick evokes a Sidney Poitier-esque determination and righteousness, also echoing the latter's Mr. Tibbs FBI character from Philadelphia in the classic 1967 film "In The Heat Of The Night".  Nick will be damned if Philadelphia's going to be defeated by a man whose grieving process is a tad bit different from that of most of the planet's citizenry.  Mr. Foxx, very good in "The Soloist" earlier this year, plays Nick as a dedicated public servant with a sedate whisper, and even when Mr. Foxx's character appears overmatched by the formidable Clyde he firmly holds his ground, making the onscreen tête-à-tête between himself and Mr. Butler especially gripping.

Mr. Gray draws tension effectively by pulling strings, pushing audience buttons and upping the ante like a high-stakes gambler.  Granted, he engages in high-risk enterprise with a few conceits, sleights-of-hand and several jolting surprises yet directs "Law Abiding Citizen" with total confidence and a credibility that belies much of its flawed substance.  His actors are a big help: aside from Oscar-winner Foxx and Mr. Butler there's also good work from Colm Meaney as a police investigator and Viola Davis as the mayor of Philadelphia.  Ms. Davis ("Doubt") wisely resists the acting hysteria often accompanying portrayals of mayors or law authority figures in these types of films, playing her role with realism and urgency. 

"Law Abiding Citizen", a suspenseful experience which opened today in the U.S. and Canada, is shot in greenish, icy-cold blues and has a mood reminiscent of "Seven" but even more so "The Silence Of The Lambs", except there's plenty of screaming resulting from Clyde's destructive ways.  As a lawyer I watched "Law Abiding Citizen" as a guilty pleasure, knowing that its issues could be solved in about ten minutes.  But when you're seduced by a director who has persuaded you that suspension of disbelief is akin to a defense attorney convincing you that you didn't see what you just saw, well, you just have to hand it to Mr. Gray -- who if nothing else earns an A for effort with this film.

With: Leslie Bibb, Bruce McGill, Regina Hall, Christian Stolte, Michael Irby, Brian Distance and Emerald-Angel Young.

"Law Abiding Citizen" is rated R by the Motion Picture Association Of America for strong bloody brutal violence and torture, a scene of rape, and pervasive language.  The film's duration is one hour and 48 minutes.

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