It’s not hard to find someone with a cynical view of lawyers, especially trial lawyers, many of whom are more interested in their own careers and in winning cases than they are in seeing that justice is served. It’s an old story that’s been told again and again in the cinema.
Law Abiding Citizen is the latest in the bad lawyer genre, with Jamie Foxx as career focused attorney Nick Rice who accepts a plea bargain from the killer of affable inventor Clyde Shelton (Gerard Butler)’s family.
The film opens with Shelton and his daughter working together in the basement, while his wife prepares dinner. There’s a knock on the door and when Shelton opens it, he’s wacked with a baseball bat, tied up, and then watches as the assailant picks up the daughter and (mercifully for us viewers) murders her off-camera. Later, we learn that the wife was also murdered.
Cut to attorney Rice and his team accepting a plea bargain where the killer, Darby (Christian Stolte), has agreed to turn state’s evidence against his co-assailant, Ames (Josh Stewart). That will end up putting Ames on death row, while Darby – the real killer – would only be guilty of third-degree murder and imprisoned for 3-5 years.
Shelton’s not happy about this plea bargain, resulting in Rice yelling at him that “it’s not what you know, it’s what you can prove in court. I know you don’t think it right now, but this is a victory for us.”
It’s not a victory, and, frankly, Law Abiding Citizen gets so muddled up with its complicated storyline and poor performances from both Butler and Foxx that it’s a movie best left for a DVD rental or even skipped entirely.
The film cuts to Kelly Rice (Regina Hall), Nick’s wife, complaining to him ten years later that “You haven’t been to one of [their daughter's music] recitals”, as he returns to the office. Instead of his daughter’s cello recital he attends Ames’ execution and the two scenes are alternated in screen predictably, with Ames’ last minute confession spoken over the girl’s cello recital. It’s a painfully obvious two-shot and the unpleasant scene of Ames painfully writhing and screaming as he dies is an awkward juxtaposition against the girl’s performance.
The execution is botched, and it seems to be the work of Darby, the original killer. Seconds before he’d have subsequently been arrested, Darby’s warned on the phone by a mysterious male voice that’s no mystery to anyone watching the film. At gunpoint he hijacks a police car and ends up in the clutches of a vengeful but disconnected Clyde, who drugs, kidnaps and tortures him in a very unpleasant scene that goes on far too long.
Boom goes the car in a scene from Law Abiding Citizen
The story is clear at this point: how far can revenge go before the victim of the crime becomes a criminal themself?
Shelton is arrested for Darby’s brutal, graphic murder and when Rice refuses to bargain with Shelton to get a confession, Shelton’s campaign to harass Rice and everyone else involved in the original murder trial begins, all having been carefully planned in advance.
But Shelton’s in jail, how can he be orchestrating a terror campaign? Cat and mouse.
There are a number of scenes in the film that suggest the smart movie that this could have been, notably including the scene where Rice argues before a judge that Shelton should be denied bail while Shelton represents himself calmly, then becomes unhinged and begins swearing at the judge and court officials.
A few shocking scenes transpire, and then Rice talks directly with Shelton: “What principle was at work when you murdered and tortured those people?” Shelton replies: “That everyone should be held accountable for their actions.” I think that’s the moral they were exploring, but the muddled storyline precludes that as a serious consideration.
About halfway through, the film takes a typical Hollywood left turn and we find out that Clyde Shelton isn’t a slightly goofy, clueless inventor who had his wife and daughter murdered, but, well, I won’t spoil it, but it’s the predictable path director F. Gary Gray traveled. I so wished that instead the brilliant Alfred Hitchcock had directed Law Abiding Citizen. He would have understood why having the anti-hero be an everyman would make the film work so, so much better.
A tiny spoiler: In a puzzling twist, Rice’s associate Sarah (Leslie Bibb) first serves as Rice’s conscience in a few scenes then is killed by one of Shelton’s booby-traps. Narratively, why kill off the only person who has the courage to ask the obvious question: was it right to plea bargain with Darby in the first place?
Ultimately I think there was a really interesting film buried within Law Abiding Citizen, but it only sporadically shone through the otherwise poor, unengaging performances and a narrative storyline rife with logical glitches that kept puzzling me instead of engaging me. And that’s too bad.