A highly implausible and surprisingly lurid revenge flick where lawyers and judges stand in for street-dwelling scumbags, Law Abiding Citizen blasts out of the barrel with an unsettlingly intimate act of violence and doesn't pull any punches in detailing one man's war against a corrupt justice system. And while director F. Gary Gray and screenwriter Kurt Wimmer's tense tale of vengeance and grief delivers some nasty surprises that send it careening dangerously close to Saw territory (especially early on), it does manage to raise some thought-provoking questions regarding the ethics of the swaggering legal eagles whose actions sometimes prove more self-serving than benevolent.
Ten years ago, Clyde Shelton (Gerard Butler) watched helplessly as two violent home invaders murdered his wife and daughter. Clarence Darby (Christian Stolte) and Rupert Ames (Josh Stewart) should have been put away for life, but when Clarence cut a deal with rising prosecutor Nick Rice (Jamie Foxx) to get a death sentence for Rupert, the system showed its flaws. When Clarence gets out of prison, Clyde delivers the kind of justice that Rice couldn't -- or, more accurately, wouldn't -- for fear of putting his high conviction rate in jeopardy. It seems like an open-and-shut case, but what Rice and his team don't realize is that they're not dealing with your typical vigilante. Clyde is determined to bring down the corrupt system by whatever means necessary, and he's more than capable of doing so. When Rice and his team get Clyde thrown in prison and the killings continue uninterrupted, they must race to piece together the puzzle and identify his accomplice on the outside before everyone who was involved in the case dies. What they all fail to realize, however, is that Clyde Shelton is a born tactician, and every move he makes has been meticulously planned -- including going to prison.
Unlike most "revenge" films, Law Abiding Citizen is more concerned with detailing the many ways the justice system can fail rather than affording us the visceral release of watching a grieving family man track down the baddies who've done him wrong to give them the Death Wish treatment. In choosing this approach, the filmmakers keep us somewhat at arm's length emotionally, though by focusing on the mystery of how Clyde accomplishes his impossible mission, they give us plenty of motivation to stay involved with the story. There's no doubt some viewers may be turned off by the ferocity of the front-loaded tragedy and the sadistic nature of Clyde's revenge on Clarence, but Butler's compulsively watchable performance does help to take the nasty edge off of the action, and keeps the character somewhat sympathetic even when he's seemingly drifted so far off the deep end that his methods appear to overshadow his motivations. Still, there's little denying that the final revelation is laughably ludicrous, and ultimately raises more questions than it answers. For that reason and others, demanding thriller fans may resent Law Abiding Citizen as a distasteful insult to their intelligence. Folks in search of a punchy revenge yarn that breaks the mold, on the other hand, will find more than enough shocks and surprises to keep them guessing right up until they realize they've just been hoodwinked by a flick that's essentially popcorn pulp done up in courtroom attire.