F. Gary Gray’s Law Abiding Citizen is an odd beast. Despite a decent setup, interesting premise and good performances, it somehow ends up being less than the sum of its parts. However, that isn’t to say it’s a failure; in fact, the film is probably a lot better than you imagine it to be, and certainly leagues beyond the average mid-budget thriller.
The setup, whilst not wholly original, is quickly laid down in order for the film to walk less well trodden paths. Gerard Butler (last seen shooting lots of stuff in Gamer) takes the joint lead as Clyde Shelton, a man whose happy family life is devastated early on by a pair of ruthless and, in one case, remorseless killers. The quirks of the justice system allow the primary suspect to slip through the prison bars and out into society again, for which Clyde holds law man Jamie Foxx responsible. Nothing has been spoiled here, because this first act is simply the groundwork for what is to come, as Clyde’s imminent revenge targets more than just the criminals themselves.
The film, to give credit where credit is due, sticks to its convictions throughout, and throws many a curve ball at the viewer, although it has to be said that the film’s third act does rather push the levels of realism, sacrificing some of it’s well orchestrated shocks in favour of more orthodox audience pleasing. Tonally the film veers sharply, but mostly successfully, between gritty thrills and black humour. To this end, uncomfortable laughs are drawn out of unpleasant acts and sudden bursts of violence, although this effect somehow manages not to jar. Somewhat less successfully, the script jumps between subtle politicising (effective) and outright preaching (not so much) which upsets the balance. Although the film’s ruminations on the politics of modern law are hardly revolutionary or even particularly deep, there is more than enough food for thought here to ensure Clyde’s vengeful quest is not simply a mindless crusade.
Kudos should go to the film for its pursuit of comedy and thrills, however, and for evoking one of the biggest jump moments I’ve experienced in the cinema for a long time. Thankfully the script is given weight by decent performances from both leads, with Jamie Foxx’s family man in particular coming across quite strongly. He also gets the funniest line. Pomme-frites indeed.
The film can’t seem to make up its mind whether it wants to be an audience pleasing popcorn treat or a serious, political thriller. It ends up being partly both, (which was perhaps the genuine intention), and with varying degrees of success. It comes across as an odd concoction of Se7en and Kill Bill, only without the consistency of the former or the bombast of the latter. However perhaps such comparisons are unfair. Law Abiding Citizen is a cut above most average thrillers, manages to get some smirks, and is the best Gerard Butler film for some time.