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.’
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.
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.