Law Abiding Citizen is a sweet, unassuming movie about a gentle family man…for about five minutes. We watch as Clyde Shelton (Gerard Butler) spends quiet time with his little girl – they chat comfortably, and then they head upstairs for dinner with mommy. Except that the doorbell rings and dinner never happens, because the two men at the door kill Clyde’s wife and daughter, stab him in the side, and leave him bound and gagged on the floor. From that moment on, Law Abiding Citizen is like a Toyota with a stuck accelerator. All you can do is hang on for the ride and hope to God someone figures out how to make it stop.
Though the perpetrators are caught, prosecuting attorney Nick Rice (Jamie Foxx) is almost certain that there’s not enough evidence to convict them. And so he cuts a plea deal with the killer, sending his accomplice to death row. As far as Nick is concerned, that’s that. It’s as much as he can hope for, given the way the system works, and really, he did the best that he could for Clyde. Nick is a family man with a pregnant wife at home, so it’s not as though the case doesn’t move him. It’s just that we lived in a messed up world with a flawed legal system, and all you can really do is your job. Right? Unless of course you’re Clyde Shelton, who, broken though he may be, is willing to fight.
The thing is, Clyde never had a choice in any of this. He never had a chance to protect his wife and daughter, and he wasn’t asked whether he wanted the killers to go to trial. It was a raw deal all the way around, and it’s not in his nature to sit back and accept it all. Instead, he plots and schemes for ten years, then serves up his own version of justice when Bad Guy #1 is sent for lethal injection. Suffice to say his execution goes alarmingly awry, and soon enough Bad Guy #2 is facing execution as well.
All signs point to Clyde, and again Nick Rice steps in and tries to do his job, figuring he can pressure a confession out of Clyde, get a conviction, and move on to the next case. He assumes there’s no consequence for ignoring Clyde’s outrageous demands, but the carnage doesn’t let up, even after he’s in custody. It quickly becomes clear that Clyde is pulling all the strings and fully intends to teach the entire justice system a lesson. You know it’s kind of wrong. You know that people will be punished in ways that far outweigh their guilt. But on the other hand, it’s all weirdly satisfying. Clyde has a point. If the entire legal system “just does their job”, essentially phoning it in day after day, victims are made to pay, and the scum of the earth is allowed to win. “Go, Clyde, go! Er, wait. Maybe you should stop. Nick Rice has a little girl too, and maybe he doesn’t need to die before he learns to appreciate how lucky he is.”
Obviously watching Law Abiding Citizen stirs up a host of conflicting moral issues, but the movie ends as it should, and there’s much to be said about the ride. Once the pace is set, it never lets up, and the only lulls are quickly contrasted by a startling burst of action. Butler offers up a performance that is as moving as it is badass, and Jamie Foxx brings depth to a character who could have been little more than an ambitious suit. For any of its faults, Law Abiding Citizen succeeds as an action thriller as well as a compelling morality tale, a rare feat these days.