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Non-Review Review: Law Abiding Citizen

Law Abiding Citizen is an interesting movie. It’s a well-made thriller that seems to have some underlining arguments about the justice system and civil liberties, even if it tends to get a bit muddled towards the end. However, director F. Gary Gray knows how to handle tension, and has two very strong leading actors, which helps carrying an intriguing premise through some of the difficulties it has with its own moral philosophy.

Naked guns?

Before we continue, my inner grammar nazi makes the observation that it’s a strange title. One would imagine, for the title to make sense, there’s a hyphen missing (“Law-Abiding Citizen”, as in one who abides to the law). However, it could very easily be intended literally – without the hyphen, it suggests that it is law that is abiding to the citizen, which might be fitting as the movie does explore the exploitation of the legal system. Perhaps there’s a bit more going on here than meets the eye, to this grim and gritty revenge film that also serves to vent frustrations at an impotent criminal justice system, where “it’s not what you know, Clyde, it’s what you can prove in Court” and apparently “some justice is better than no justice.”

The basic plot sees Clyde witness the rape and murder of his wife, and the murder of his young daughter. When “extenuating circumstances” occur (which are never really specified – but it’s implied the police did not follow proper procedures, and it’s needed to get the plot going) and render the vast majority of evidence inadmissible, Clyde watches man who murdered his family go to prison for a couple of years, with the promise that he’ll be back on the street soon enough. Of course, the younger person involved in the crime (and the one who tried to stop it) ends up with the death penalty, but Clyde wants revenge, and he wants it bad.

Trying to out-Foxx Clyde...

Clyde proceeds to engage on a crime spree of his own, armed with the law to protect him as he causes all manner of carnage – and remains relatively untouchable. He’s aghast at the way that the system seems unable to deal with him – even venting his frustration when (following two grisly murders) Clyde is almost able to secure bail be citing obscure legal precedents. “You were about to let me go?!” he demands, “Are you kidding me?” As he’s pulled out of the courtroom, between generous helpings of the scenery, he yells, “Whatever happened to right and wrong?! Whatever happened to justice?!”

Clyde is the embodiment of frustration at a justice system that seems fundamentally broken, something that ordinary audience members are undoubtedly familiar with from years of reading newspaper clippings and hearing reports of criminals who managed to “cheat the system” in “miscarriages of justice” and all that sort of stuff. Clyde actually feels like a more bureaucratic successor to those old out-for-justice vigilantes of the seventies in films like Death Wish, only trying to prove that “the system doesn’t work”, a feeling it’s easy to empathise with. So there is the suggestion of something there, and Clyde initially appears to be a sympathetic, if occasionally violent, character trying to do what he feels is just in the face of a system that protects the guilty.

Bloody murder...

And then the film sort of blows that notion apart, which is something I admire – as it would be too easy to glorify Clyde and his frustration at the system. The movie makes it clear that Clyde himself doesn’t discriminate between the guilty and the innocent. He kills people for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, he even targets his adversary’s family to prove how bad he is – how far over the edge he’s gone. So, despite the fact that Clyde is tapping into a sentiment that the audience can recognise, the movie isn’t ambiguous on his morality: he’s the villain; he’s wrong; he’s evil. And the movie works well when it embraces this point of view, with Clyde is a cardboard cutout villain (albeit one with sympathetic motivations) played with great relish by Gerard Butler. The lack of any real sense of moral ambiguity is grand, because it keeps the movie as a rather conventional thriller, without too many deep questions to distract it from all the running and tension and explosions.

The problem occurs when we reach the end of the film, where everything resolves itself. The final actions that our protagonist, the prosecutor Nick, is forced to take in order to combat Clyde involve all manner of moral compromises for the character, and has serious implications, suggesting that Clyde’s methods work. More than that, the movie doesn’t even seem to hint that they are wrongand, while Nick’s actions are shown to be slightly compromised, they’re never unheroic. It’s a strange ending, because Nick adopts his opponent’s methodology, which the film clearly considers to be unequivocably evil, and yet he remains a hero. These decisions might have some weight if the film ever seemed to really engage with the issues, but making Clyde so evil in the first place side-stepped debate and discussion.

Captivating drama...

Still, that’s a relatively minor problem. The reason the movie has difficulty with the ending is because it concedes the issues are complex, when it has been treating them as relatively simple for most of the runtime. This allows Gray the chance to focus on the performances his actors are giving, and the confrontations and races against time that he builds up. Jamie Foxx has a wonderful leading man presence here, playing the prosecutor with great style. It’s harder than it seems to play an action movie hero, and Foxx does a great job. Butler looks so happy to be off the set of a romantic comedy that he pours a phenomenal amount of energy into the role of Clyde, and that really focuses the film. In fact, the scenes the two share together work really well.

It does what it sets out to do, giving us a fairly conventional cat-and-mouse thriller. As long as you don’t worry too much about the ridiculously complicated mechanics of Clyde’s plans (which at one point involve an assault on a funeral that wasn’t even planned at the time of his arrest), it’s good fun – and those involved in the film do a good job keeping the viewer focused on what’s unfolding rather than applying too much scrutiny to the variables involved in any long-term plotting. F. Gary Gray does a good job at balancing the demands of the script, giving us a confrontation that feels both intimate (between the two leads) and epic (between Clyde and the structure of government.

It's a lock...

Law Abiding Citizen isn’t a great movie – the ending raises too many questions that the movie has already brushed aside – but it is an entertaining one, if you can suspend your disbelief in Clyde’s nearly prescient planning ability. It has a great cast and smart direction, which helps cover up the fairly fundamental problems that we find towards the end of the film.

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