It wasn’t so long ago that Gerard Butler was catapulted into the Hollywood limelight, hot on the heels of his performance and pectoral development in the epic battle flick, 300. A couple of years and a few films later, he plays another calculating character waging a brutal war. This time, the terrain is modern-day Philadelphia, and he isn’t fighting so much for physical territory as for the revamping of the justice system -- one murder at a time.
In Law Abiding Citizen, Butler plays the loving Clyde Shelton, whose wife and young daughter are brutally murdered in a home break-in. Jamie Foxx plays Nick Rice, the ambitious district attorney who Clyde hires in the aftermath. Nick, we learn, is intent on maintaining his rock star conviction rate, and might just have a chip on his shoulder about going to Fordham night school instead of Harvard. It’s no surprise, then, when he bargains with one of the murderers while the other one heads to death row.
And that’s where Nick Rice goes fatally wrong. Ten years later, the bargain-boy bad-guy is out of jail and Clyde is mad as hell. Butler captures seething anger (with a tinge of derangement) as his character employs a range of tools to exact his revenge. A chain saw, explosives, technical expertise and general mental superiority are a few of his favorites that soon turn Phillie into a terror zone. The catch? Clyde’s in jail, after trading Nick a confession for a new mattress in his cell. It seems like Nick might be ahead of the game -- until his next trade. This time it’s a murder tip for a steak lunch, which ends with a dead cellmate, a broken spork and a blood-spattered Clyde, who’s promptly sent to solitary confinement. (But not, obviously, before he finishes lunch.)
Despite Clyde’s double-doored lock-up, he’s somehow still orchestrating systematic murders of those who were involved in the baddie’s plea deal. Tension builds as Nick’s buddies begin to drop like flies, and the tete-a-tete is officially on. Unfortunately for Nick -- not to mention the audience -- he keeps missing the point. And until he understands that Clyde wants more than vengeance, the heads are rolling... or exploding. Foxx’s smooth-talking DA has become the figurehead for a failed system that Clyde thinks will change if he keeps the bombs dropping.
This larger point about justice -- and how to better achieve it as individuals and as a society -- is an admirable premise. But even that weighty agenda can’t prop up Citizen enough to justify the gratuitous violence, non-stop death fest and thin character development. A hint of backstory isn’t quite enough to explain Clyde’s brilliant-psycho schtick, while you’d think Nick’s philosophical evolution might keep pace with the colleague murder rate. So while Law Abiding Citizen tackles a topic not often spelled out, it’s fundamentally about guys blowing stuff up -- albeit with a little more planning and a tautness that, at the very least, ensures an action-packed few hours of entertainment.