[Ed. Note: Weekends are for movies. And if Jamie Foxx is acting the part of an impassioned lawyer opposite real-life lawyer Gerard Butler (he was fired as a first-year in Scotland and picked up acting), we need to talk about it. So we turned to our film critic friend, Todd Gilchrist, for a review from the court of critical opinion.]
While it would be a serious mistake for any moviegoer to take too seriously F. Gary Gray’s new film Law Abiding Citizen, about an attorney who squares off against a criminal who’s disillusioned with the U.S. legal system, it’s suffice it to say that Gray’s film doesn’t paint a particularly flattering portrait of lawyers.
Jamie Foxx plays the legal eagle in question, and his character commits enough offenses to ensure that his name and “justice” should probably never be mentioned in the same sentence. But then again, the whole film is pretty much an affront to anything resembling appropriate behavior, much less moral rectitude or even just common sense, that Gray’s latest should hardly be called out for offending any particular group—especially when so much of it manages to be surprisingly fun.
Foxx plays Nick Rice, an attorney for the Philadelphia D.A.’s office who cuts a deal with a couple of lowlifes in order to preserve his 95 percent prosecution record—much to the chagrin of his client, Clyde Shelton (Gerard Butler), who wants the murderers of his wife and daughter brought to justice. Ten years later, both of the defendants die under mysterious and grisly circumstances, and authorities apprehend Clyde as a murder suspect.
Nick takes the case and expects a quick conviction, but before Clyde will admit to the murders, he confesses that he has an ulterior motive for allowing himself to be captured by the authorities: He wants to take down the entire legal system piece by piece, starting with the folks responsible for helping his family’s murderers go free. Before long, Nick finds himself in a deadly game of cat and mouse with Clyde that will not only shatter his spot at the top of Philadelphia’s legal food chain, but potentially literally destroy the lives of everyone around him.
A little over ten years ago, director Gray made his name as a mainstream moviemaker with The Negotiator, and if you’ve seen it, then you’ve seen most of Law Abiding Citizen. Both feature experts in their specialized fields turning the tables on the folks they collaborated with or worked for. More importantly, both movies create vaguely sympathetic figures out of characters whose behavior would otherwise be considered criminal.
What is interesting about this film, as opposed to its predecessor, is the fact that Clyde’s quest for revenge starts off somewhat understandably—initially hunting the criminals who ruined his life—but then moves on to less specific or relevant targets. No matter how outraged you might be about the rape and murder of Clyde’s family, it seems excessive, if not plain bonkers, for him to subsequently take out the defense attorney, a judge, and some of Nick’s colleagues.
Ironically, there’s a certain kind of visceral enjoyment to be gleaned from Clyde’s indefatigable inventiveness, his irreverence, and his overall bloodlust. In his dismantling of the legal process (at least surrounding his own case), he turns Nick and his team into gophers for his personal appetites, even as he coordinates an elaborate string of murders that are far too entertaining to hold much emotional meaning. But that may also be the point of their glossy, epic execution (no pun intended)—to engage in the escapist pleasure of explosions and violence as a way of distracting the audience from the fact that Clyde has morphed from a mourning husband searching for justice into a homicidal madman who will stop at nothing to make his point.
Meanwhile, of course, there’s Nick, who’s designed to embody the persona of a soulless bottom-liner, even though Foxx desperately does his damnedest to imbue him with humanity. Among his personal and professional infractions, there’s making a deal with opposing counsel without consulting his client; failing to recognize the lack of a confession until it’s pointed out by the person making it; repeatedly neglecting to take seriously a guy who successfully commits several murders not only while in prison, but incarcerated in solitary confinement; and, worst of all, missing his daughter’s cello recital. The whole point is to obviously teach Nick the value of “true justice,” whatever that means, but his arrogance and ineptitude in dealing with Clyde is so egregious that it would almost be enough for him just to learn a little bit of humility.
Ultimately, however, the film is too busy being clever to be truly smart, which is why it’s ultimately better than bad, but not really good. Screenwriter Kurt Wimmer (who created the criminally-underrated 2002 science fiction film Equilibrium, manages to construct daring, invigorating set pieces that entertain audiences and pay off the story’s superficial concepts, but confined in the context of the physical (or even just logical) world, much of the real friction in Nick and Clyde’s showdown disintegrates. For example, would a guy who has all of the angles covered everywhere else forget to set up a defense system for a secret hideout? And if he would, why would he?
The lack of consideration for questions like that, much less their answers, is why Law Abiding Citizen is preposterous at best; but then again, as Nick might say, some justice is better than no justice at all. All of which is why even if it’s not an open-and-shut classic, it occasionally makes a compelling argument for the kind of movie that thrills your pulse while not quite making you think.
Todd Gilchrist is a member of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. He contributes regularly to AOL’s Cinematical blog as well as Sci Fi Wire. His reviews frequently appear on Rotten Tomatoes.