Law Abiding Citizen (2009) dir. F. Gary Gray
Starring: Gerard Butler, Jamie Foxx and Colm Meaney
By Greg Klymkiw
Great vigilante movies are driven by a hero or anti-hero that we connect with on a personal level and where ultimately, there are few, if no shades of grey in the quest for retribution. They are also driven by a directorial style that is not only efficient, but endowed with a clear obsessive voice.
Michael Winner’s classic 1974 thriller “Death Wish” is the first mainstream picture in a decidedly urban setting to make vigilantism entertaining and acceptable as an alternative to supposed law and order. Charles Bronson starred as Paul Kersey, a Manhattan architect whose perfect life is shattered when a pack of thugs home invade his wife and daughter, rape and beat them to a pulp, send the wife to her grave and the daughter to a catatonic state. Frustrated by the seeming indifference of the police and the general lack of law and order, Kersey embarks on a one-man vendetta against crime – roaming the mean streets at night and inviting random acts of violence against him to provide ample opportunities to turn the tables and blow the filth away. The chief investigator of these vigilante slayings is a detective played by the sympathetic, jowly and always-engaging Vincent Gardenia. Between bouts of exquisite vigilante violence and an entertaining cat-and-mouse game between Bronson and Gardenia, “Death Wish” had “hit” written all over it, playing as it did to packed houses of cheering blood-lusting action enthusiasts in addition to crossing over and appealing to movie-goers of all stripes..
Winner himself seemed to hit his stride as a director with “Death Wish” – displaying virtuosity and a penchant for nastiness that was seldom matched either by his own work or others (save for Don Siegel and Sam Peckinpah who decidedly went further and with even more style in their own ground-breaking pictures). That said, Winner was no slouch in the style department. With “Death Wish”, his style was dark, clinical and even now, it’s a film that packs a considerable wallop. Aided by Wendell (“Anatomy of a Murder”) Mayes’s terrific single-minded screenplay, the picture wisely dispensed with the shades of grey in the original source material of Brian Garfield’s novel. The thematic retribution staple of so many westerns and historical pieces was now placed in a contemporary context and was, for quite some time, accepted by audiences with very open arms.
With a great tradition of vigilante pictures since the ground breaking “Death Wish” (including last year’s delightful surprise hit “Taken”), the recently-released “Law Abiding Citizen” had a lot of potential to join this delicious coterie of moral reprehensibility as mass entertainment. Kurt Wimmer’s ambitious screenplay sets the wheels in motion for vigilantism directed at ALL the perpetrators of crime – the criminals, the lawyers AND the entire justice system. Seeing the filth get their come-uppance is always pleasurable, but to have the vigilante act upon the system itself, not unlike a home-grown terrorist, could have taken the genre into a whole new realm.
The buff macho hero at the centre of “Law Abiding Citizen” is seeming everyman Clyde Shelton (Gerard Butler) who is home-invaded, forced to watch as his wife and child are raped and murdered, then left for dead – bound, gagged and bleeding on his living room floor. As if this wasn’t indignity enough, Clyde watches helplessly as the ambitious Philadelphia prosecutor Nick Rice (Jamie Foxx) negotiates a plea-bargain and sends the accomplice to a death sentence while the foul perpetrator of the violence is handed a slap on the wrists. Needless to say, revenge is extracted on both the accomplice and the true person behind the heinous crime in a manner that puts most torture porn to shame. That’s just an appetizer, though. Where the real fun begins is when our hero plays cat and mouse with the system that let him down and he begins murdering lawyers, judges and politicians – in the City of Brotherly Love, no less.
Sadly, the picture is a letdown on two prime counts. Firstly, and most notably, the direction provided by F. Gary Gray is so utterly lacklustre that this potentially stirring narrative plods forward – not with an obsessive quality, but with the dull, single-mindedness of a bull elephant rampaging about a fine china shop. Gray is a director who at his best is barely competent (“The Italian Job” remake) and at his worst, completely bereft of talent (“Be Cool”, the miserable sequel to “Get Shorty”). Secondly, Kurt Wimmer’s potentially solid screenplay veers into confused, schizophrenic territory where the anti-hero becomes a sort of protagonist to the prosecutor, who is portrayed, not as the antagonist, but as the eventual hero. Unfortunately, the prosecutor is clearly a bonehead. He ignores his duties as a family man for his job, he allows ambition to guide his actions and he becomes obsessed with nailing the vigilante to save his own ass – personally and professionally. In many ways, this is a similar problem that drags down Scorsese’s (at least well crafted) remake of “Cape Fear” where the simple good versus evil story is marred with the wrongheaded attempt to shade the tale with grey – what made J. Lee Thompson’s original so powerful was the pure adherence to black and white (lawyer – good, psychopath – bad, unlike Scorsese’s: lawyer – morally ambiguous, psychopath – bad, but almost justified in exacting terror upon the lawyer).
One wonders if Wimmer’s “Law Abiding Citizen” screenplay was unceremoniously and bone-headedly over-tweaked-and-tinkered-with to provide new-fangled moral ambiguity to what should have been a simple, but effective white-hat-black-hat action thriller. Most importantly, one also wonders if it might have been a more successful outing if Wimmer had directed himself. As a director, Wimmer's Milla Jovovich ass-kicker “Ultraviolet” displayed just the sort of panache and obsessive qualities that could have made “Law Abiding Citizen” a genuinely entertaining and effective vigilante picture. It was, alas, not to be. Instead, we’re saddled with a confused, dull and by-the-numbers action thriller that lacks a necessary nastiness and clear directorial voice. We still get to see lawyers, judges and politicians blown away along with criminal scum and while this is not without considerable entertainment value, it all could have risen above the mere IDEA of such delightful proceedings and instead delivered the real goods.