Monday, October 26, 2009



By the end of the second act of LAW ABIDING CITIZEN, I was so completely enraptured with the film that it seemed it simply couldn’t get any better. All of the traditional steps that thrillers take had been subverted, none of the events that had taken place so far made any sense, and the tantalizing revelation was just minutes away. Then it all crashed down into a slightly inspired but routine twist on any number of revenge thrillers.

Director F. Gary Gray came screaming into mass-cinema consciousness as the director of the uber-expensive, meat locker music video, NATURAL BORN KILLAZ starring Dr. Dre and Ice Cube back in 1995. He then turned around and directed the feature FRIDAY which is respected as ground zero for hip-hop comedy. Gray has continued to hustle the sidelines, pumping out films that we have all heard of but which haven’t made the complete purchase of cinematic hall of fame recognition. SET IT OFF, THE NEGOTIATOR, and THE ITALIAN JOB are all his. Now there is LAW ABIDING CITIZEN, a movie that ultimately misses the mark like Gray’s other films.

CITIZEN is comparable to a fantastic sandwich on two horrible, moldy pieces of bread. The film starts ugly and ends stupid. At certain points, this Trojan horse of a film really feels like it is going to be that awesome sleeper that no one has discovered yet. But it isn’t. CITIZEN is fraught with some plausibility issues and a conclusion that is absolutely criminal. Do you remember Stallone’s LOCK-UP? At the end Donald Sutherland is strapped to an electric chair, and the switch is thrown. Stallone (who has been a prisoner in the jail) steps up with a fuse in his hand and says not to worry. How did he get the fuse? To this day, I still don’t know how electric chairs harness their energy, and the hacks that wrote LOCK-UP knew this about me. There is a similar shell-game at play in CITIZEN. It is unfair and out on the furthest branch of the tree known as “suspension of disbelief.”

CITIZEN starts with the brutal rape and murder of Clyde Sheldon’s (Gerard Butler) wife and the offscreen murder of his daughter which he is forced to watch. Nick Rice (Jamie Foxx) is the District Attorney assigned to prosecute the two men accused of the crime. Rice is a hotshot lawyer with a near perfect prosecution record. He wants to maintain this record, so to guarantee a conviction, he lets Clarence Darby (Christian Stolte), the primary rapist/murderer, off with a lighter sentence. But his accomplice, Rupert Ames (Josh Stewart), goes to death row for crimes he didn’t actively commit.

Ten years pass, and Rupert gets his lethal injection. But something goes violently wrong during the execution (in a strange reversal to the aforementioned LOCK-UP), and Rupert dies a vicious, painful death. The cops and Rice are investigating what went wrong and track down Clarence Darby for questioning. But Darby gets help eluding the police from a mystery caller on his cellphone. The mystery caller is Sheldon who leads Darby to a warehouse. Sheldon then physically takes Darby apart, SAW-style.

When the police realize that Sheldon is behind the gas-chamber FUBAR and Darby’s deconstruction, they come for him. Sheldon strips down naked and waits for the police. Thus begins the cat and mouse game between Sheldon and Rice. While Sheldon is behind bars people associated with the case are being killed. Rice and company are frantically trying to figure out who Sheldon is working with.

Gerard Butler is believable as Sheldon; he has a glint in his eye and an impressive physique left over from his 300 workouts. What is Sheldon’s game? He has an agenda, and it has to do with proving the judicial system is flawed. He intends to bring the whole system down. “It will be biblical,” he threatens. The damage that we see Sheldon do is really phenomenal and fun.

Foxx isn’t doing anything special as Rice. The problem is that we have seen Jamie Foxx do this role before. It is a stock performance. Another problem is plausibility. It is actually rather silly to watch this lawyer do a criminal investigation. The character of Rice should have been scripted as two or three people. And his violation of boundaries as a lawyer is hard to accept.

As previously mentioned, the first two acts of this film really chug along hard. The third act of the film, however, devolves into a postmodern pastiche of SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, TAXI DRIVER, and SILENCE OF THE LAMBS with a familiar DEATHWISH twist. The plot formula is a simple one: An imbalanced person is forcing their world-view on the sane around them. This is a common formula recently used in THE DARK KNIGHT. For what LAW ABIDING CITIZEN is trying to accomplish, it fits in rather nicely.

CITIZEN is escapism. There is a lot of chance and coincidence that goes into making the plot even remotely feasible. Writer Kurt Wimmer has delivered similar plots in the past with EQUILIBRIUM and STREET KINGS on his resume. CITIZEN is a testosterone-heavy popcorn movie. Hang the bulk of your brain at the door, keep your complete-package expectations low on this one, and you might have a great time.
-Mediasaurus Rex