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Law Abiding Citizen

Sometimes, even The A.V. Club isn’t impervious to the sexy allure of ostensible cultural garbage. Which is why there’s I Watched This On Purpose, our feature exploring the impulse to spend time with trashy-looking yet in some way irresistible entertainments, playing the long odds in hopes of a real reward and a good time.

Cultural infamy: In a funny coincidence, my dad called me last night wanting to talk about Law Abiding Citizen, the 2009 F. Gary Gray-directed thriller starring Jamie Foxx and Gerard Butler. He frequently calls to ask my opinion on whatever movie he happened to rent that week, and almost as frequently begins the discussion by telling me that he’s glad my stepmom didn’t decide to watch it with him: “Kathy wouldn’t have lasted five minutes with all the violence.” But like me, my dad keeps going back to the well of movies that are almost sure to be crap. I never entirely pieced together whether he liked Law Abiding Citizen, though I learned that he had never seen Gerard Butler in anything before. Not that I would necessarily trust dad’s opinion: When Pulp Fiction came out, he didn’t like it at all. He found it far too violent, and thought the violence was treated with far too little reverence. (“When that kid got shot in the back seat of the car, everybody in the theater laughed,” he said, astonished.)

More importantly, what did the liberal media think about Law Abiding Citizen? According to the cover of the DVD, Roger Ebert said it was a “taut thriller.” Neither of those words exactly implies an endorsement, though Ebert’s review is the highest on Metacritic, at 75—a.k.a. three stars. By the end of his review, however, Ebert has already started backpedaling: “Law Abiding Citizen is one of those movies you like more at the time than in retrospect. I mean, come on, you’re thinking. Still, there’s something to be said for a movie you like well enough at the time.” In a way, that’s a good summation of I Watched This On Purpose itself. So good on ya, Roger.

Other critics were not so kind. Our own Scott Tobias gave it the dreaded D, which to me means it wasn’t bad enough to be F-level-enjoyable in its ineptitude, and not even good enough to recommend as a distraction. He does call it “flagrantly ridiculous,” though, which gave me some hope. Better that than trying to apply real-life rules to brainless action movies. Give me Crank any day.

Curiosity factor: Or give me Saw, the movie to which Law Abiding Citizen was compared in pretty much every review. Presumably it’s because both offer elaborate revenge-torture fantasies, and who can’t get behind that? Here’s what I knew from the trailer: Gerard Butler’s family is murdered. One of the perps is freed on a technicality or something. Butler sets about murdering the people in the justice system who allowed it to happen (or something) until they let him murder the actual murderer. (This impression turned out to be wrong.) Jamie Foxx is a D.A. who’s perhaps torn between “doing the right thing” (following the law) and “doing the right thing” (allowing some old-fashioned murderin’ to take place in the name of justice). Apparently the Saw comparisons come into play via Butler’s elaborate killings. Sounds like fun?

In any case, revenge movies can be cathartic and entertaining, even for pants-wetting liberals like myself. (And they usually throw us a bone by telling the person seeking revenge, “killing him won’t bring back your [wife, daughter, etc.]!”) Revenge movies are awesome, even when they suck, to put it simply. (See: The Italian Job, Payback, Four Brothers.) And when they’re even a little good, they’re even more awesome. (See: Kill Bill, The Devil’s Rejects, Oldboy.) So I’m in.

The viewing experience: Well, Law Abiding Citizen is pretty stupid, to be sure, but it starts promisingly enough, even if no one will mistake its premise for originality. Gerard Butler, having a lovely evening at home with his adorable wife and button-cute daughter, answers a knock at the door only to be kicked and stabbed—then forced to watch his dying wife raped by a cold-blooded robber/rapist/murderer. His daughter is then taken to another room by the more sinister of the two thugs—their degrees of culpability are important later—and presumably also subjected to things that the moviegoing public would rather not think about. (The badness mostly takes place offscreen.)

Anyway, Baddie A does the murdering and raping while Baddie B looks like he wants no part of it. But because of AMERICA’S STUPID JUSTICE SYSTEM (movie’s emphasis), Baddie A is able to testify against Baddie B and pin all the blame on him. Jamie Foxx, who’s kind of an asshole throughout the whole movie, has to explain this to the aggrieved Butler. The truly evil Baddie will get out of prison in five years, and the guilty bystander will die by lethal injection. (Why? Because the judge ruled something something DNA something stupid too much Law And Order made-up junk inadmissible something something.) “It’s an imperfect system,” says the guy who played MacGyver’s buddy.

So Foxx delivers the news to Butler, who is understandably upset, but shows no signs of being a revenge-seeking super-killer capable of planning and executing Rube Goldberg-like plans for vengeance. (And who also maybe turns out to be a former super-spy. More on that later.) Foxx pooh-poohs Butler’s insistence that his eyewitness testimony will be enough to convict these killers, saying “Your testimony won’t be reliable.” (Wha?) Then, in a moment that’s reflected in real-life plea deals every day, Foxx gives a press conference, during which for some reason the plea-dealt Baddie A is able to come up and shake his hand. Watching from a distance, Butler seethes. Why was he standing so far away from the action? Only the director can tell you.

And then: “TEN YEARS LATER.” The appeals process has apparently failed Baddie B, and he’s about to be executed by lethal injection. Not content to let 10 years spent anticipating his own death and then, y’know, dying be punishment enough, somebody somehow manipulates one of the chemicals in the death juice so that Baddie B suffers horribly. Hey look, it’s President Charles Logan from 24 playing the warden!

Baddie A, meanwhile, is off doing what truly bad men do: snorting cocaine in a run-down apartment while a bruised, half-naked woman lies on a dirty mattress on the floor. A computer voice calls and tells him to get out of the house because the cops are coming, then leads him to a cop car, where he kidnaps an officer and drives him to a remote location. But oh man, the joke’s on him—and it’s becoming clear that the joke’s on everyone watching the movie at this point—when it turns out that the gun he’s holding will inject him with poison (“isolated from the liver of a Caribbean puffer fish”) when he tries to shoot it. And then of course we discover that the kidnapped cop is actually Gerard Butler wearing a bad wig. Which means it’s time for a speech.

And now it’s torture time! It turns out that Butler gets his real revenge quite early in Law Abiding Citizen: He straps Baddie A down to a surgical table, hangs a mirror above him (which he cranks into place like a bad Bond villain), and then proceeds to cut him into pieces. “It’s gonna be the last thing you see, as I cut off every single one of your fucking limbs.”

And, if you can believe it, things start to get tedious from there. Butler is arrested—naked, wearing only a bracelet his dead daughter made that says “Daddy” on it—but there’s no evidence linking him to the crime, beyond the fact that he has the world’s most obvious motive and he owns the warehouse in which the guy was killed. He knows what to say in a super-dramatic jailhouse interview, too:

He even talks his way into bail, but when the lily-livered judge is ready to grant it, he rattles on about how fucked the justice system is (after referring to himself as a “law-abiding citizen”). He doesn’t need to get out anyway, because it turns out that sweet family man Gerard Butler is some kind of super-criminal who’s planning (for no real reason) to go on a murder spree of mostly innocent city officials, up to and including the Mayor. He believes that somehow this will prove him right.

Mostly it just proves him boring and silly. He kills the judge by planting something in her cell phone that makes it explode and blow her brains out. He buries another guy alive, also from behind bars. He murders his cellmate with a steak bone—and we don’t even know what that guy did!—in an orgy of blood.

How does he do it!?!? (Massive spoilers ahead.) He does it in two ways. One, he’s some kind of ex-CIA gadget-maker who’s apparently really dangerous. We learn this from an informant who shows up in one scene to scare Jamie Foxx and tell him just to kill Butler in his jail cell. The other big twist (seriously, spoiler!): Butler dug tunnels into every single cell from the outside, so he could go in and out of prison undetected. Somehow he knew he would be sent to this jail. And he didn’t just dig shitty little tunnels, either. No, these look like mines, complete with lights! And they lead to his “control room,” which is filled with high-tech gadgets and Semtex.

When Foxx discovers some blueprints (through some detective-work mumbo-jumbo that was overly explained and still made no sense) that make him realize the underground-tunnel thing, he has just one word to whisper-scream:

There are some more killings in here somewhere, and they’re pretty pedestrian for a movie that was so frequently compared to Saw. C’mon, guy—car bombs? That’s so Casino. Butler is somehow still free after all of this to move about the city and plant a bomb in City Hall, where he somehow knows there’s going to be a big important meeting. (He wants to kill big important people, just to show ’em that they can’t be acquaintances with a dude who cut a plea deal with a murderer 10 years ago.) Foxx finally finds himself ahead of Butler, and in a little trick designed to relieve himself of any responsibility for Butler’s death, he basically tricks Butler into killing himself with his own giant bomb. In the movie’s one stretch toward art, the flames lick around Butler’s dank subterranean cell while he looks at his bracelet—“Daddy.” 

How much of the experience wasn't a total waste of time? Law Abiding Citizen, believe it or not, might have been a decent movie if it had spent a little more time figuring itself out before shooting. The first 30 minutes are entertaining in a cheesy-thriller way, and if the script had been a little more sure of what it wanted to be—a horror film? A realistic revenge caper? A meditation on the American justice system?—it might’ve turned out okay. But there are too many tricks for which we’re expected to suspend disbelief, and not enough crazy over-the-top stuff to make up for it. They wanted it both ways, and ended up with none of the above. I’m gonna say 25 minutes, though I will also say that it’s a far, far better movie than 88 Minutes. That’s just an aside, though, and one that applies to pretty much every movie.