FlixChatter Review: Law Abiding Citizen

If you read my blog regularly, you know I’ve been pumpin’ this flick for quite a while. Yet, come Friday afternoon, after reading all the dismal reviews by top critics, I sort of had second thoughts about it. Now, it’s not because I give that much faith in what the critics say, but I was actually dreading what they called ‘unnecessary violence’ and gore, and the SAW horror gore-fest comparison. I’m very, very squeamish about stuff like that, so even with the prospect of seeing Gerard Butler in nearly every scene, I still had some reservations whether I could stomach the violence. Thanks to Becky, I went to see it anyway, and boy, am I glad I did!

First thing that came out of my mind when I got out of the theater: What’s the critics’ been smokin’? Did they even watch the same movie?

With the efficient running time of 1 hr 48 minutes, the film quickly grabs your attention and doesn’t let go until the end. It opens with a cuddly scene of a seemingly happy home of Clyde Shelton, tinkering with some kind of gadget whilst his young daughter makes a string bracelet. But within minutes, that idyllic existence is snatched away in a gruesome way that ended with his wife raped and killed in front of him whilst he helplessly watched. As if that weren’t enough, the same thug that raped his wife then went after his daughter, right about the same time Clyde passed out. Boy, that’s just within the first 10 minutes. It’s easily the most horrific opening scene I’ve ever seen.

We’re then introduced to Nick Rice, a successful District Attorney (Jamie Foxx) with his perfectly-pressed suit and a stellar record of 96% conviction rate (which he indignantly pronounces when his colleague mistakenly think it was ‘only’ 95%). The ambitious DA ends up cutting a plea bargain with the assailant, despite Clyde’s pleading that the jury would believe him if this case goes to court. Nick keeps blabbing about the DNA evidence being inconclusive — even using the fact that Clyde blacked out during the incidence against him — but it’s obvious the attorney only cares about maintaining his conviction rate. It was harrowing to watch what happened to Clyde in the beginning, but it’s just as painful to see him from a distance watch Nick shaking hands with the criminal that destroyed his life.

Fast forward 10 years later, and Nick’s humble home is now transformed to a luxurious dwelling that signifies his growing success. His daughter is nearly 10 but he has no time for her nor for her mother. His priority is his job, and he’d rather miss her daughter’s cello recital (again) but instead opt to see the execution of one of the thugs that robbed Clyde. A vicious ‘mishap’ happens during the execution by lethal injection, and we soon finds out that Clyde’s not going to take this ‘injustice’ laying down. He then goes after Darby, who only served 3 years in prison for what he did, and makes him suffer a barbaric death (I had my eyes closed the entire time, but Darby’s agonizing squeal is enough to make me squirm!). As part of his strategy, Clyde surrenders to the SWAT team that swarm his house, with nothing but his daughter’s bracelet on his wrist. The nude scene isn’t gratuitous as one would be inclined to think, but he did it to say, ‘I have nothing to hide.’

Nick visits Clyde in prison
Nick visits Clyde in prison

Critics compare Clyde with some movie nutcases such as Hannibal Lecter, John Doe from Se7en, even the Joker, but the difference is, Clyde is no psychopath. His grief and distraught state of mind obviously has taken over him, but he doesn’t kill people simply to satisfy his lust for blood. All the grisly murders are calculated tactics with one intended target: to send a message about the crooked justice system. Now, by no means do I condone such vengeful acts, but at the same time, I’d rather not have people like Darby roaming on the street freely to repeat his crime again and again. So I sympathize with why Clyde wants Darby dead, but it’s another matter when he starts targeting all the people of the legal system involved with his case, all from the confinement of his cell!

The rest of the movie plays out the mano-a-mano between the two leads. There are some memorable lines during the negotiations, including Clyde’s quoting 18th century military strategist Carl von Clausewitz, “lessons not learned in blood is soon forgotten.” He manages to one-up Nick and blindside the entire city with his systematic killing spree. Even the mayor (played by Oscar nominee Viola Davis) was puzzled, “he’s locked up in a cell and still killing people?” The big question going through everyone’s mind was: how does Clyde pull it off? This is the biggest complaints from the critics, that it’s implausible and absurd that one guy can do all that. Well, this is a movie, of course some suspension of disbelief is to be expected. Even so, I actually find the ‘absurd’ plot in question to be quite sensible. Someone with Clyde’s skills and money devoting 10 yrs of his life to mastermind his ‘war’ against the broken justice system doesn’t seem that far-fetched to me. I mean, that seems an adequate amount of time to plot such a tactic, especially for such a weapons expert good enough to be hired by the US government for covert special ops.

What I like the most about this movie is the ambiguity and gray area of the lead characters, it’s not clear-cut who’s the hero or villain of the movie. Like a lot of moviegoers, I tend to side with Clyde, but becoming less so with the mounting body counts. It makes the face-off between him and Nick all the more effective, as we don’t know who we’ll root for next.

Gray directing Butler
Gray directing Butler

I also enjoy F. Gary Gray’s fast-paced and energetic direction and how he peppers the serious tone of the movie with sporadic wit and humor. It’s definitely far from boring. The movie also gives a noir-ish vibe that the director spoke about in his video diaries. The lighting and music captures that, even though I don’t really ‘notice’ the music that much, which is a good thing as it blends in nicely and helps set the mood, instead of being a jarring piece that sounds good but detach you from the movie. The  juxtaposition scenes, particularly between the cello recital and the death chamber, is an effective and captivating visual style. I also love the cinematography with its gorgeous aerial view of Philly.

It’s interesting to note the lopsidedness of the top critics’ ratings with those of the regular moviegoers (top critics’ 25% vs. average moviegoers’ rating of 94% @ rottentomatoes.com). The disbelief probably should be in the critics’ credence, as most people disagree with them (read a compilation of very positive users’ rating here). Their three main complaints are the implausible plot, what they call unnecessary violence and gore, and sub-par performances. I’ve addressed the first point above, but as far as the graphic scenes, it wasn’t as bad as they made it out to be. Even my friend Becky who can’t stand gory stuff said it was tolerable as the deed mostly happen off-screen.

The critics are also way off when it comes to the acting aspect. You might think I’m biased here because I like Butler, but truthfully, I think this is could be the best performance of his career. From his previous roles, I know he’s an actor that can bring a layer of vulnerability to his bad-@$$ performances. But he takes it another notch here with his sympathetic and convincing portrayal as both as a bereaved family man, as well as the menacing rogue hellbent on carrying out ‘justice’ at any cost. Jamie Foxx delivers an okay performance, I just don’t care with his character much, which is probably intentional. Naturally, the crazy-dude role is much more exciting and gets the best lines, so Butler’s role is the far more memorable one by a long shot. The supporting cast is terrific, too, especially Bruce McGill as a fellow lawyer and Colm Meaney as the detective, even Leslie Bibb makes for a sympathetic character. If I had to nitpick however, I actually find Viola Davis’ performance rather over the top, as she comes across as furious and cold the entire time.

In conclusion: It’s not a perfect movie (but then again what is?) and the ending could be more tightly written, as it feels too rushed and perhaps too ‘neat’ compared to the gritty events leading up to it. Yet despite its flaws, it’s still an enjoyable, edge-of-your-seat thriller that’s well-worth my 10 bucks. Though the film doesn’t necessarily have ‘answers’ to the foible of the legal system, it does leave me pondering about it, and creates some interesting discussion afterward.

20 thoughts on “FlixChatter Review: Law Abiding Citizen

  1. Vony

    I think this is the movie that I wanted to go too. There are too many horor movie during haloween that I really don’t care about. So, during the ‘horor movie month’ something different than any other genre will be good.
    I am getting tired of so called critique who compare one movie to the other, and try to over look what the director want to acomplish. So, besides Roger Ebert, I only read your coment about movie.. heeeee

    1. Hi Von! Yeah, you should check it out… but leave Chloe at home though. It’s definitely not for kids. I REALLY, REALLY like this movie, even though I came in with an open mind and was prepared that it’d not meet my expectations, but it was surprisingly very good. Gerry is fantastic, easily one of his best roles. I had my eyes closed during the really violent scenes (just don’t want to have disturbing images in my head), but my friend who sat next to me said it wasn’t as bad as she thought, and she didn’t like gore/horror stuff, either. The subject matter definitely makes you think… I personally don’t believe in revenge as only God has the right to take a life, which is why it’s interesting there’s no real ‘hero’ in this movie.

  2. Samantha

    Interesting! I’m glad you enjoyed it. Still not my kind of thing, but good to hear some different perspective. As we’d previously discussed, this is definitely one where you have to take what critics say w/a grain of salt, because they don’t normally like things that are borderline “horror”…

    1. Hi Sam, y’know, I like thrillers but can’t stand the gory stuff (and I hate horror movies!). But this movie actually doesn’t ‘dwell’ on the gore, it was just a couple of scenes and once you passed those, the rest is more of a cat & mouse action flick and some interesting dialog. So if you haven’t seen it, give it a chance. GB is fantastic in it, which is another reason to see it. Frankly, I disagree with most of the negative critics on this one, I think there’s a complete disconnect there between them and average moviegoers. It’s as if they’re not from the same planet!

        1. Sounds good, Sam. Be sure to saunter back and let me know what you think. Btw, sorry I somehow forgot to respond to your previous comment, that’s cool that you & your hubby have a film-watching project, that sounds fun! So do you watch one per week then, or what interval do you watch ’em? James Bond movies are fun, I grew up watching those (the Roger Moore era), but my fave Bond is Timothy Dalton, and Daniel Craig a close second. I like Connery but his movies are too old for my taste, so I don’t enjoy them as much. How far more to go are you in the AFI Top 100? Don’t they update the list annually? If I were to do that, I’ll never catch up with ’em =)

          1. Samantha

            No prob. 🙂 It’s fun to talk to someone about movies, though. We aren’t really following any sort of timeline on either of our “projects” … perhaps we should; we’d probably be finished faster that way. For the AFI list, we’re using the 1998 list. They keep updating it, but that’s the one we started with. We sort of just watch them whenever, which is why we’re not as far along as we might otherwise be … we’re only on 61, working our way down to 1. It’s awesome, though; we’re seeing so many films that we’d never watch otherwise, and we’ve found a few that we really enjoy. I had actually never seen any of the Bond flicks until Pierce Brosnan, so we thought it’d be fun … we have one more Roger Moore to go (thank god, I think he’s terrible). All this while watching whatever else is on our Netflix queue … I think having a “one a week” rule might be a good idea, though … have to try and sell that. 🙂

  3. Mike B.

    I was at “Couples Retreat” (a really, really, really BAD movie) when I snuck out to get some candy, then peeked in on 5 min of LAC. Just after they found the cut up body – from what I saw (no pun) it seemed interesting. If I’ve got time between taking the kids to “Wild Things” and “New Moon” I’ll see it. Thanks for a realistic review!

    1. Ha! I heard about Couples Retreat, looks funny from the trailer though. Wow, you’ve got some busy movie schedules ahead of you, eh? You should definitely check this one out for yourself Mike. If anything, it’s an enjoyable thrill-ride that keeps you at the edge of your seat most of the time. It’s got one of the strongest exit polls so far, and it’s already exceeded the studios’ box-office expectation. Not bad for Gerry’s first producing gig.

  4. PrairieGirl

    I’ve always been a little skeptical of professional reviewers, and now I’m downright annoyed with them for their thumbs-down on this film. Even a positive reviewer got something so obviously wrong I wonder if he really watched the movie: Clyde’s daughter looks to be about 4 years old, but in his review he said she was his “teenage” daughter – yikes!

    Agree with rtm 100%, her review here is the accurate one. Will see this movie again!

    1. I know what you mean, Becky. Some of them are probably biased against either the film maker or the cast, too… I bet if it were one of their beloved directors, say Coen brothers, it doesn’t matter how ‘implausible’ the premise is, they’ll still rave about it. GB isn’t a critics’ darling but moviegoers generally connect with him, which is the case here. The Phantom was trashed critically, but the DVD was a huge best-seller, even ‘300’ wasn’t exactly embraced by the critics.

      Yeah, I definitely wouldn’t mind seeing this again, either!

  5. rockerdad

    Sounds like a pretty entertaining flick – I wish I could actually get out and see it in the theater. Won’t get a chance until it is out on DVD. I think most people would rather see Butler kicking ass than Charles Bronson in Deathwish.

    1. Yeah, it’s definitely not a family flick, Vince. I’ve never seen any of the Bronson flicks so I can’t compare this to those. I’d rather watch Butler any day than the mustached-one =)

  6. mcarteratthemovies

    Finally! I confess that I have been waiting for your review — wanted to read it before I saw the movie. Critical response has not been good, but you’re a Gerard Butler fan and in a weird way I think that makes you more objective than people who still see him through “300” glasses. Most critics seem to take issue with what they call the unbelievable premise. Since when does a good movie have to have a believable premise? Can you say “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” people? I’ll suspend my disbelief if the acting’s good enough.

    So long story short, I am seeing this movie and I am eager to see if my thoughts — the thoughts of an admitted non-Gerard Butler supporter — line up with yours.

    1. I was trying to post my review by Saturday but never got around to it, so thanks for your patience =) Y’know, there’s always an actor or two that you like so much that they’re kind of critics-proof in a way. GB is that guy for me. Even so, I had no interest in seeing his last two flicks TUT & GAMER, though I still might check ’em out on DVD. But with LAC, I had a pretty high expectation and I wasn’t disappointed. This isn’t an Oscar movie but it sure was entertaining, probably far more so that some flicks that reap a bunch of awards.

      Glad you’re going to give this movie a chance, M. Looking forward to reading your fabulously-written review on this one. Don’t worry, I won’t take offense if you don’t like it =)

  7. Great review even though I disagree with a lot of it. Whether something is good or bad is only a matter of opinion. In my opinion the story and the script where so bad that some relatively solid acting from the leads was unable to salvage the film. I know you read my review so I won’t rehash what I thought was wrong with it. It is interesting to note that you read bad reviews but liked the film I was the opposite, most of the reviews I read before seeing it (including yours incidentally) where okay to positive.

    1. Yeah, to each their own when it comes to movies. I gotta admit that the fact that I like Butler probably makes me like this movie more than I would otherwise. I realize that most people’s problems with this flick is the unbelievable plot, but it seems pretty probable to me the fact that Clyde had TEN years to devote to this cause & he’s got money to burn (literally). Anyway, I guess we agree to disagree… no harm, no foul 🙂

  8. Outstanding in-depth review Ruth! It was definitely a shocker for me to see this movie so lowly rated in RT and then pull up the IMDb page and see a rating of 7.2/10. Definitely one of those case where a couple critics say something and everyone else hops on the bandwagon.

    1. Why thank you, Castor, I guess I was quite um, passionate about the subject matter. I’m not saying critics are always wrong but in this case I just felt that the dismal review wasn’t justified at all. I mean, one reviewer said something about the way GB moved his mouth when he talked bothered him and I went like, well how is that a fair review?? Everyone I went with (which were mostly guys) really enjoyed it, and all of us were puzzled by what the critics said. Anyway, this is definitely something I won’t mind watching again… and no, it’s not for the ‘surrender scene’ 🙂

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