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Law Abiding Citizen: A Contrary Review

Updated on March 19, 2013

Let's imagine for a second. Let's say your home was invaded, you were beaten and tied up, your personal effects were taken, and your wife and children were murdered. It's an awful, awful thing to contemplate, but for the sake of this review, let's say you do that. You survive, despite being hit in the face with a baseball bat and knifed, and your life is ruined, but you are able to survive because the police know who did. They, in fact, have them in custody and have DNA evidence, so you can at least find some peace in the fact that justice will be done. Except, for some reason, the DNA is inadmissible. That's OK, though, because you're an eye witness, and even though you blacked out during the actual murders, you are a hundred percent certain who did it and you can testify. Except, the prosecutor, Nick Rice, is unwilling to try a case that he isn't positive he can win. In order to make sure he doesn't tarnish his record, he makes a deal with one of the killers (the more vicious of the two, in fact) in order to secure a conviction of the other. And so the man most directly responsible for the death of your family gets only a handful of years and his picture in the paper shaking the prosecutor's hand.

In most revenge movies, you take your anger out on the people criminals who killed your wife and daughter. If you're Clyde Alexander Shelton, you not only do that, but you go after the scumbag defense attorney, the judge, the prosecutor, and the entire justice system. This is Law Abiding Citizen and I liked it. Most critics, of course, don't.

It's interesting (to me, anyway), that while Drag Me to Hell was a movie that critics loved but I was pretty ambivalent towards, Law Abiding Citizen is the opposite. 25% on Rotten Tomatoes, 34 out of 100 on Metacritic, losing out to Where the Wild Things Are at the box office, it's not a pretty picture. The main criticisms levied against this movie are that it's unbelievable, violent for the sake of violent, and that the film makes you root for a terrorist. Honestly, those criticisms are not 100% wrong (though they are definitely not even close to 100% right, either). But even accepting those criticisms as fully valid, 25% is still ridiculously harsh to me. I'm not here to pretend that the movie is perfect, because it's not. But as a perfectly enjoyable way to spend an hour and forty minutes, I certainly recommend it.

Let's unpack things a bit further. Nick Foxx is played by the Academy-award winning Jamie Foxx and Clyde Alexander Shelton is Gerard Butler, a man who is awesome when given the right material and, well, not when he is not. Neither one would go on to win any awards for this movie, but to say they are phoning it in like so many of the critics do is mistaken. Both men do well in their roles and that is all the movie asks for them. Law Abiding Citizen is more concerned with concepts than any kind of character development. Aside from the opening scene of the film, Butler is in full psychopath mode, a man fully committed to his plan to ostensibly upend the entire justice system with no room for contemplation or hesitation. Rice has an arc, if you want to call it that, in that he starts the film willing to make deals with murderers and ends up on the opposite end of the spectrum, but it doesn't seem like much of a leap for him to take, really. The two men play their roles as they needed to be played and I have no complaints.

And that is important for this type of movie, because you do have to be willing to suspend your disbelief for it to be enjoyable. The idea that Shelton is able to do all that he does, orchestrating the deaths of almost a dozen people while being behind bars, is because he was once worked as a technical expert for the CIA, one that specialized in killing people while being in a different room. Yes, that's pretty crazy and it's not believable, because if he was truly that good, you'd think the CIA would have been scared out of their minds about this guy around the clock, but so long as you are able to accept that he is just Crazy-Prepared (see the link below if you're looking to lose the rest of your day), things work. The fact that is is unbelievable is only a problem if you let it be one; I didn't, you shouldn't, we'll all be happier.

The movie really isn't all that violent, either. Admittedly, I haven't see the unrated Blu Ray, but just because a lot of people die in this doesn't mean it's that violent. There are a few gory moments, but most of the deaths are completely bloodless (car bombs tend to be relatively light on gore). The most violent thing that occurs in the movie, the dismemberment of one of the original murders, occurs off camera; it's described, not shown. A movie that was violent for the sake of being violent, something like Hostel or one of the lesser Saw movies, would have shown every lurid detail on screen. This movie doesn't, and I think it's much better for that. Having said that, of course, we'll see what I think when I eventually get around to the unrated version, but as theatrically presented, I've seen films that are much more violent.

Finally, there is the face that the movie gets you cheering for a terrorist. The movie does come close to this because, in this film, at least, Shelton has a point. The justice system in this movie is broken and corrupt. The more violent of the criminals testifies against his accomplice and gets only a few years in prison. Rich refuses to try his chances and get the death penalty for both of them because he doesn't want to affect his 96% (!!) clearance rate. Rich is training his chief prosecutor to be exactly like him, and when she asks if what they are sacrificing in their lives to do their jobs is worth it, he has no answer for her. The judge is a complete tool who is willing to violate civil rights just because the D.A. asks her to. The mayor wants to abuse the Homeland Security Act to get Shelton out of her city. Everyone in a position of power in this movie is corrupt, to varying degrees. I think this is what critics are pointing to when they say this movie asks us to root for a terrorist. But I think this movie does something very clever, in that it sets you up to want to root for Shelton when he is taking out the men who ruined his life, and it starts you down the path of rooting for him as he fights back against the justice system by making everyone corrupt, but the movie stops you from following that path to completion by shifting the violence from the corrupt (the criminals, the defense attorney, the judge) to the innocent (Leslie Bibb's prosecutor and Rice's family, both of whom didn't do anything to warrant the treatment they receive). You may start out wanting to cheer for Shelton, but you won't be that way by the end of the film, which is as it should be. The movie isn't even really about Shelton fighting the justice system; in the end, it's obvious that Shelton just wanted Rice to realize that making deals with murderers is a bad idea. Shelton wants Rice to realize that he had a grave mistake by cutting a deal and that he shouldn't do it again. Everything else is collateral damage.

As a final note, one I think backs up my point just a little bit, are the names of two of the characters. The more violent of the two criminals is Clarence James Darby. Butler's psychopath is Clyde Alexander Shelton. No one else in the movie gets the middle name treatment and for good reason; if John Wilkes Booth, Mark David Chapman, and Lee Harvey Oswald have taught us anything, it's that the truly deranged have three names.

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