(Overture) Jamie Foxx, Gerard Butler, Bruce McGill, Colm Meaney, Leslie Bibb, Michael Irby, Viola Davis, Regina Hall, Annie Corley, Roger Bart. Directed by F. Gary Gray
Justice is something of an abstract concept in our modern civilization, but when you get right down to it, justice is about wrongdoers paying for their wrongdoing. Most of us are well aware that justice isn’t guaranteed simply because the rights of all, even those who commit heinous crimes, must be respected. We are required to prove guilt rather than innocence, as most legal systems worked before ours. It can be tricky to prove what you know.
Engineer Clyde Shelton (Butler) has a good life, a beautiful family and a good deal of wealth. In one horrible evening, it’s all taken away from him when a pair of brutal home invaders murders his daughter, rape and murder his wife and leave him for dead. The Philadelphia police capture the two thugs who committed the crime, but the ambitious prosecutor Nick Rice (Foxx) trying the case decides to make a deal with the killer in exchange for sending his partner to death row. Shelton is outraged, but is helpless to do anything about it.
Ten years later, the convicted thug is finally getting his just desserts. The execution by lethal injection, however, goes horribly awry, leading to a particularly gruesome and agonizing end. Shortly thereafter, his partner who testified against him is kidnapped and cut into many, many pieces on camera while the horrified city watches. The killer is revealed to be Clyde who is subsequently arrested. That’s when the circus really begins.
All those who had something to do with the trial – from the defense attorney to the judge who tried the case to the assistant who worked with Nick on the case – meet a grisly fate, ostensibly at the hands of Shelton who is, incredibly, locked away securely in a prison cell at first, then a solitary confinement cell eventually. Even this doesn’t stop Clyde from exacting his revenge from prison. Does he have an accomplice, or is he the second coming of Houdini? How is he accomplishing all this mayhem from a prison cell?
Director F. Gary Gray has done some interesting movies in his time (The Italian Job and Be Cool among them) and this one is no less so. Here he takes a script that really forces us to examine the justice system and its priorities and turns it into an action thriller. The action sequences work to varying degrees, but the movie is truly at its best when Butler and Foxx are allowed to do their things. Yes, it can be said to be a direct descendent of Death Wish but it’s not a rip-off so much as it is a logical extension; the Charles Bronson character was not nearly so clever as the Gerard Butler character is here.
Foxx is a gifted actor who makes a basically unlikable character likable. Most of us will cringe when he takes the low road to get a conviction, but this is certainly not uncommon among prosecutors. He’s also a family man, and when that family is threatened he turns into a cornered grizzly, all the more dangerous.
Butler is one of the most likable screen presences going right now; that saves him quite a bit here. He has to rely on audience sympathy to keep them aboard as most of his actions are pretty sick and twisted. If there’s a problem with the character, we don’t get enough of him as a sane family man at first in order to see his descent into amoral vengeance taker by the movie’s end. Plus, often he seems to be omniscient, which makes it harder to relate to him. Keeping him human makes the character more relatable to audiences and that is better for the movie.
The support cast is mainly solid character actors who fill their roles admirably. Meaney, of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine fame is particularly memorable as the dogged detective who assists Nick in his investigation, but McGill is solid as the DA that Foxx replaces.
This took a critical lambasting when it was released, but I really can’t say why. This is actually a good movie, not just a decent one but a good one. It kept my attention and had a few interesting twists in it; you can’t ask for much more from a suspense movie than that. While it doesn’t claim to have a fix for the justice system which will always be imperfect as long as humans are involved, it at least initiates the conversation which puts it a step up of most suspense movies to begin with.
WHY RENT THIS: This is a taut, suspenseful thriller that is surprisingly well-acted. Raises some compelling questions about the justice system.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Makes Clyde out to be nearly superhuman; a little more realism might have been more effective there.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a good deal of brutal violence, some of it rather sadistic. There is a fairly graphic rape scene, as well as a whole lot of bad language. This is definitely for mature audiences only.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The man holding the Bible as Nick is being sworn in as the new District Attorney is the actual Mayor of Philadelphia at the time the film was shot.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: An interesting featurette entitled “The Justice of Law Abiding Citizen” has a couple of legal experts debating the plausibility of the script which has to be a first for Hollywood.
FINAL RATING: 8/10
TOMORROW: The Cove