In each era of American history, the then modern-day American political climate seems to always seep into our countries action movies. Sometimes they manifest in interesting ways but other times history has shown that action cinema chooses to reflect the real world in toxic ways that try to soothe the frayed nerves of privileged members of society in order to ensure that everything is just hunky-dory with the actually troublesome status quo. Much like Rambo and other testosterone-fueled action movies of the 1980s were very much made as responses to the post-Vietnam climate of the country, Law Abiding Citizen is a movie made for the era of the PATRIOT act as good guy detectives proudly deliver “heroic” lines like “Fuck his civil liberties” and a mayor played by Viola Davis makes a sweeping speech to urge law enforcement officers to bend the law to take down Gerard Butler’s baddie. The end justifies the means for Law Abiding Citizen, a thriller seemingly handmade for people who would dismiss Taxi to the Dark Side as “fake news”.
What exactly is the plot of such a feature beyond being a love letter to Bush-era politics? Well, it's the story of lawyer Nicholas Rice (Jamie Foxx), who prides himself on his high conviction rate. How does he do it? Well, sometimes he makes plea deals with bad people to ensure they'll forego a trial and go straight to jail. That's just what he does with the people who killed the wife and daughter of Clyde Shelton (Gerard Butler), much to Shelton's chagrin. Ten years after the murderers got away with lighter sentences, somebody starts taking out these killers in vicious ways. Who could be behind these slayings? I'll give you two guesses and the first doesn't count. What follows is a cat-and-mouse game between a newly incarcerated Shelton and frazzled lawyer Rice, the former of which is now hellbent on vengeance against not just the criminals who killed his family but the entire justice system that failed him.
Like many movies (hell, maybe all of them save for the How to Train Your Dragon films) Gerard Butler has headlined, Law Abiding Citizen is pretty bad. Even totally ignoring its creepy attitude towards civil liberty laws, it's just a poorly put-together movie. Unlike many of Butler's worst action fare though (like those snooze-inducing Olympus Has Fallen films), Law Abiding Citizen does have a number of moments that achieve a sort of perverse watchabilitysheerly out of the fact that this movie. Such unintended entertainment emerges because the film is so dadgum intent on carrying a grim tone for its entire runtime while working with a plot so ludicrous it makes an intentionally wacky melodrama like Women on the Verge of a Breakdown look like the most grounded Yasujiro Ozu movie.
Take the scene where Clyde Shelton gets arrested for instance. For some reason, he decides to get naked for this pivotal moment. We watch him strip off his clothes and then greet the various police officers with his bare butt out for the camera to gaze upon. Right after that shot, we cut to Shelton being loaded into a police car wearing only some blue jeans. Did the cops force him to just put on some pants? There are all kinds of weird moments of unintended comedy like that scattered throughout the rest of the movie. They're not plentiful enough to make this a trashy masterpiece, not even close, but they do help to make the runtime go by a little faster and inject it with more moments of personality than you'd find in, say, Gods of Egypt.
Some of those moments come about thanks to Butler's poorly calculated performance. In a bid to make his own Hannibal Lecter, Butler tries his best at the super-smart serial killer routine and he's just terrible at it, he's about as convincing in this part as Carrot Top was at being a CEO. His line deliveries are especially terrible and that's a big problem for a movie all about supposedly chilling dialogue exchanges between him and Foxx's character. Butler's line deliveries are too riddled with brutish edginess where there should be calm intellect, moments where he abruptly springs into violence should leave the viewer shocked but Butler plays it like an inevitability that this guy will brutally slaughter someone when given half-the-chance.
A woefully miscast Butler makes the villain of Law Abiding Citizen just another knock-off of Butler's 300 character rather than a menacing standalone character. Poor Jamie Foxx, a talented actor way too good for this material, just looks adrift delivering this movies tepid dialogue. F. Gary Gray actually shows some flair behind the camera in how he orchestrates a handful of scenes, like an extended single shot showing everyone in Rice's office nervously watch a clock as it gets closer and closer to 6:00 AM. Talented individuals like Gray and Foxx cannot salvage the mess that is Law Abiding Citizen. At least we got some unintentionally funny moments out of it, like how humorously overpowered Shelton becomes in the third act or a climax where time seemingly loses all meaning.