In Defense of Law Abiding Citizen

Law Abiding Citizen, Gerard Butler, F. Gary Gray, movie, photo

Last week,  the Urban World Film Festival  took place in New York. I saw a photo somewhere online and it reminded me that one year ago, the festival featured the US premiere of “Law Abiding Citizen.”  I realize that it may be a little late for this, but the film has been on heavy rotation on Starz for the past month or so, and even though I own it on dvd, I’m compelled to stop and watch whenever I happen upon it. There are some things I’d like to say, and since I’ve created a forum for myself to do just that, I’m going to.

I remember when LAC was first released, being very discouraged by all of the negative press the film received. It felt as if a lot of the ‘old school’ film critics had decided they were all, as an entity, not going to like it. The best reviews (and some of them were surprisingly literate and thoughtful) came from small little nowhere papers or media outlets. To my mind, there just has to be a reason for the disparity between critics and what the audiences were saying. How is it possible that one film can score a lousy 22% with critics and an 84%with the public?*

It seemed to me that it had something to do with not being able to accept anything at face value enough to just enjoy the elemental thrills of a movie like LAC. Are “critics” so jaded that they are afraid of a purely visceral experience?

There was even one critic** that I read, who admitted to having turned down a chance to see a screening and yet still exhorted moviegoers to skip it. He based his opinion solely on his dislike for the lead actor as a person, even though the example he cited (which he linked to) is so tame it’s laughable.  (More to the point he seems, along with a lot of other people, to be holding Gerard Butler’s post-300 resume against him. I’m generally not one of those people. While I may scratch my head at some of his choices, I’m not privy to his thought processes. I can only surmise. I do think he chooses movies for a lot of reasons: some are brave or bold and come from the desire not to be pigeon-holed and to constantly challenge himself.  Some of them come down to loyalty and the desire to work with friends. In any case I think every actor who signs on the dotted line after reading a script is taking a leap of faith, putting himself, his reputation and his career into someone else’s hands and trusting that they will take good care of those things. There had to be something on those pages that made Gerard Butler think these were movies worth making, worth devoting months of his life to and since it has never been called into question that he brings 100% to every project he tackles, it seems to me that other people are letting him down. JMHO and as usual, I digress.)

I’ve (tried) to make this point before. Professional critics, so called, are also human beings. A review can be influenced by any number of factors including whether he or she had a fight with their significant other that morning or there was a traffic jam on the way to the theater, or they didn’t have time for a martini before the screening. Some are notoriously predisposed to certain genres or to disliking certain actors. (To name names, EW’s Owen Gleiberman, who has gotten increasingly cranky in general over the years, was being quoted everywhere, including the aforementioned piece, because he disliked the lead actor’s “mush mouthed bravura.” That had nothing to do with the movie itself, but because Mr. Gleiberman couldn’t get past Gerard Butler’s speech patterns, to him, it was a bomb.)

If the trailer, the genre, the actors, the director, etc etc. don’t interest you, you are certainly free to keep your hard earned money and not spend it on a ticket. That is your prerogative and your right. You should, however, abstain from passing judgment until you do so.

The predominate words used by paying customers who’ve seen this film are “gripping”, “edge-of-your-seat” and “thrilling.”

Is the movie preposterous? Of course it is! That’s hardly the point. If you went into the theater looking for a documentary or a tutorial on ‘how to get justice from the criminal justice system’ then I can understand why you might be upset. The real question, the only question, should be is it entertaining? The answer: Hell yes it is!

No matter how many times I’ve seen it, I’m still fascinated by Clyde’s vivisection of Clarence Darby. His description of what he plans to do to this breathing lump of excrement is priceless. It’s what we think we’d like to do in his situation to the millionth power. The scene is designed to recharge the audience that, after the opening scenes of brutality, has been lulled into believing they knew Clyde. It’s over the top and it works.  “Your heart is beating so fast…Me too!”

I could say that the scene where Clyde strips off and waits for the police is like a butterfly shedding its chrysalis, that he is casting off his old life and stepping consciously into another, naked as the day he was born…but that would be a tad twee. I get what the scene is about, that Clyde’s plan hinged upon his making it to jail alive and therefore he didn’t want any gung-ho rookie shooting him because they thought they saw a gun, etc. etc. But let’s be honest, I enjoy watching that scene over and over because I like watching Gerard Butler take his clothes off. (What’s more, whatever lofty reason they came up with to justify it in the script, Producer Butler knew that. I have no problem with that.)

I still enjoy the exchanges between Clyde and his cellmate, Dwight Dixon, (“Nice bed.” “Thanks, it’s a single.”) right up until the moment the steak bone slashes through the air.

And of course, there is one scene that makes me jump every single time I see. I know it’s coming and I think I’m prepared and it still gets me. (In case there are still a few readers of this blog who haven’t seen it, I won’t spoil it here. Those that have seen it know what I’m talking about.)

But for me, the entire movie comes down to one line and it belongs to Jamie Foxx’s Nick Rice: “You even THINK about touchin’ my family…”

The whole movie is encapsulated in that one scene. At a point where we should by now have abandoned crazy Clyde in favor of righteous Nick, we hear these words from the supposed ‘good guy’ and we get it. We understand not only why Clyde did what he did, but that any ordinarily ‘law abiding citizen’ might have done the same when faced with a similar set of circumstances. When does ‘touch {her} and I’ll kill you’ or something similar, stop being an empty threat and become real? How far do you have to be pushed? If you had been failed the way Clyde, an ordinarily ‘law abiding citizen,’ felt that he had been, and if you had the means to not only exact your own carefully plotted forms of retribution, and at the same time impart an object lesson to those whose jobs it should have been to protect and defend said citizens, would you?

Some have said that all of that goes out the window by making Clyde an ex-CIA black ops weapons specialist. I look at it as ‘careful who you fuck with.’ Just because someone looks like Casper Milquetoast, doesn’t mean that’s who they really are. If you ask me, that’s a valuable life lesson.

Now, having said all that, I do have a problem with the ending. If I give director F. Gary Gray credit for trying to say “Look, anyone can become a killer under the right circumstances” then I still have a problem with the WAY Nick Rice “killed” Clyde Shelton***. If he’d done as the CIA spook suggested and walked in to the cell and ‘put a bullet in his brain’ in order to stop Clyde and his killing spree, I could have understood that. What didn’t make sense was having Nick very deliberately plan Clyde’s death and then stand there and have a conversation with him, in essence torturing him the way that Clyde had tortured others. In that moment, he truly did become the monster he’d beheld. Sure Clyde had killed two of his colleagues, probably what amounted to ‘friends’ in Nick’s world, but still, on balance, weren’t Clyde’s losses still greater? Clyde had not touched Nick’s wife and daughter, in fact he had told him that he could have at any point, but very deliberately chose not to. Nick’s actions, in my opinion, were just as ‘over-the-top’ as he perceived Clyde’s to have been…and more importantly, out of character.

It is a flawed film, but all things considered, I still think Law Abiding Citizen is a good little thriller. It’s a movie I would have seen even if Gerard Butler hadn’t played Clyde. I think it’s one of those movies whose reputation will only get better as time goes by. Frankly, I think that can be said of a lot of Butler’s ‘post – 300’ oeuvre. For example, a handful of people saw “RocknRolla” in the theater. It was dismissed as “Lock Stock 3” by critics when it came out and yet I see references to it all over the web, every day, not only from critics who have rethought their positions, but people who wish they’d seen it when it came out. I fully expect this to happen to LAC.


* “Tomato-meter” the weekend of LAC’s release 10/16-18/09 (average audience rating 7.9 out of 10)

**Ben Barna,

***Did we see him die? Did we see his charred corpse? No we didn’t, so I’m holding out hope he’ll make the planned sequel. Lol

7 responses to “In Defense of Law Abiding Citizen

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  2. AWESOME!!!!!!!

    You NAILED it!!!!

    Relativity Media DUMPED this amazing film!

    They slapped Marc Forster, Gerard Butler, Sam Childers and the children of Sudan RIGHT IN THE FACE!!!!

    No commercials! No billboards! NOTHING!!!!

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