Thursday, October 15, 2009

Law Abiding Citizen: Far from arresting

Law Abiding Citizen  (2009) • View trailer for Law Abiding Citizen
2.5 stars (out of five). Rating: R, for violence, rape, torture, gore and profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.15.09
Buy DVD: Law Abiding Citizen• Buy Blu-Ray: Law Abiding Citizen [Blu-ray]

The biggest mystery concerning this tawdry, wind-'em-up exploitation flick is how it managed to attract such an A-list cast.

Kurt Wimmer's mean-spirited screenplay never could have been anybody's idea of a good time at the movies, and F. Gary Gray's pedestrian direction coaxes no better than a fair-to-poor performance from star Jamie Foxx. Fortunately, co-star Gerard Butler and the supporting players do much better.
When the incarcerated Clyde (Gerard Butler, center) somehow orchestrates
another brutal killing, District Attorney Nick Rice (Jamie Foxx, right) arranges
a private "interview" with the help of a sympathetic cop (Colm Meaney). But
Clyde isn't about to give away his secrets, which means we're in for more
indiscriminate murders.

But that's not likely to matter in a project that gives us nobody virtuous to cheer on: rather ironic, considering the degree to which the concepts of law and justice are bandied about. All the characters on display here are flawed, in some cases ridiculously so. More to the point, Wimmer's so-called "indictment" of the American justice system fails miserably, because he  and his on-screen "mouthpiece"  indulge in behavior far worse than is necessary to make some sort of point.

Wimmer also hasn't the faintest concept of authentic human emotion, and at times his characters behave in ways that are laughably unrealistic.

Finally, Gray wallows too much in unnecessarily vicious violence and gore. Although not as bad as the mainstream torture-porn that Diane Lane got sucked into last year  the utterly appalling Untraceable  this one's still gratuitously, needlessly unpleasant.

The film opens with a nasty prologue stolen from the original Death Wish, as Clyde Shelton (Butler) is bound and gagged during a brutal home invasion, and forced to watch as his wife is raped and then killed, along with their young daughter. Inexplicably, Clyde is left alive ... which, frankly, makes no sense at all.

The bad guys get picked up, and Clyde puts his trust in the hands of prosecutor Nick Rice (Foxx), an overly slick individual with his eye on conviction rates  no matter how compromised  rather than the human cost. The worst of Clyde's two attackers gives evidence against his younger, much less involved companion; the latter gets a death sentence, while the truly guilty thug gets a plea-bargained slap on the wrist.

Clyde does not take this well.

A decade passes, during which Nick has climbed the ladder in the Philadelphia district attorney's office, where he has become close to his boss and mentor, Jonas Cantrell (Bruce McGill, in a nicely modulated performance). Nick also has his own loyal understudy, the resourceful Sarah Lowell (Leslie Bibb, similarly convincing).

The younger felon involved in the Shelton family assault, finally having wound his way through the system, is strapped into the prison execution chamber for his lethal-injection cocktail. Nick, Sarah and several others are in the viewing chamber when the procedure goes horribly awry.

But that's nothing compared to what Clyde does to the other guy, more or less simultaneously, elsewhere in the city.

The degree to which we may have felt sorry for Clyde  and Butler's a strong enough actor to convey considerable pain  vanishes abruptly during this abattoir interlude, which appears to have drifted into this film from one of the Saw entries. Gray tips his hand at this point: He's not interested in serious drama or an even-handed philosophical debate, preferring instead to rub our noses in exploitative grue.

Clyde leaves the body to be found; he wants to be caught. Nick, assigned the case, is sympathetic; so is Detective Dunnigan (Colm Meaney, gruffly engaging as always), the cop in charge of the investigation. But Clyde isn't done, you see; he intends his vengeance to be "biblical." He wants to bring down the entire hypocritical, cynical, deal-making house of legal cards.

And, to everybody's mounting disbelief, he seems quite capable of doing so, even while behind bars.

At this point, the film ceases to occupy anything approaching the real world, shifting instead into superhero mode (well, actually, supervillain mode). We learn that Clyde has a background as an impressively efficient gadget-maker and black-ops "deep thinker," which is intended to justify a limitless array of defensive and lethal gadgets that would make Batman jealous.

"If he wants you dead," a government spook warns, "you'll be dead."

Yeah, right. Only in the movies.

Gray does understand momentum and suspense, having cut his teeth on The Negotiator, A Man Apart and the 2003 remake of The Italian Job. All those earlier films also suffered from idiot scripts  although the latter had the saving grace of not taking itself too seriously  but they certainly held one's attention.

The same is true here, although we watch more with fascinated distaste than any actual mental involvement.

Foxx, so adept in so many previous (and better) films, hasn't the faintest idea how to get a handle on his character here. No wonder, really, given the vacuous material in Wimmer's script. Nick is sculpted as a workaholic with no time to attend his 10-year-old daughter's music recital, which quite properly vexes his wife, Kelly (Regina Hall). OK, fine; that much is neither rare nor unreasonable.

But when Nick blandly insists on remaining at the office after a frantic Kelly calls him, because their daughter has watched a just-arrived-in-the-mail DVD of Clyde's slaughterhouse interlude ... well, that's beyond the pale. No so-called "loving father" could be that cold-hearted.

As of that moment, Nick ceases to be anything remotely approaching a real person, and nothing Foxx does  which isn't much  changes that equation. Nick becomes nothing more than a one- dimensional marionette dancing on strings yanked by Gray and Wimmer: pretty ironic, since Nick is being manipulated by Clyde in precisely the same way.

Similarly, although Bibb gives it her best shot, Sarah's I'm-willing-to-die-for-something-worthwhile speech is unintentionally hilarious and utterly unbelievable. Really? She'll cheerfully die for a vaguely expressed legal issue being controlled by a homicidal maniac?

I don't think so.

The rest is just a waiting and numbers game. How many more people will get killed, and how grotesquely? How much coincidence can be piled atop contrivance, before we throw up our hands in disgust?

And the biggie  place hands to cheeks, open eyes wide and inhale deeply  How Is He Doing It???

Wimmer, who most recently scripted Ultraviolet and Street Kings, seems to enjoy wallowing in this sort of low-rent swill; he's probably not capable of rising above it. But Foxx and Butler certainly are, and this seamy little exercise does them no favors. McGill, Meaney, Bibb, Hall and Viola Davis  as Philadelphia's feisty mayor  also deserve better.

Times simply aren't so bad that this many talented actors need to waste their efforts with the sort of midnight-marquee junk that usually pops up on Cinemax's Friday night double-bill.

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