Law Abiding Citizen

In its wildest dreams, “Law Abiding Citizen” imagines it’s a 21st-century hybrid of “Death Wish” and “Silence of the Lambs.” In reality, it’s a ludicrous combination of the two, a pointless exercise in phony social commentary that has no idea what its real message is.

Before you’ve even had time to turn off your cell phone and dig in to your popcorn, the wife and daughter of a man named Clyde Shelton (Gerard Butler) are killed in a home invasion. You appreciate a movie that gets to the brutal murders in the first two minutes. One of the attackers testifies against the other in exchange for a lighter sentence, in part because hotshot prosecutor Nick Rice (Jamie Foxx) is obsessed with his conviction rate and doesn’t want to risk a not-guilty verdict by taking the case to court. Some justice is better than no justice, he tells Clyde. Clyde is not placated. One of the men who killed his family is going to get off with just a few years of prison time.

Zip ahead 10 years! Nick is still a big wheel at the district attorney’s office, where he works constantly and neglects his wife (Regina Hall) and young daughter (Emerald-Angel Young). Clyde has gone “off the grid,” as they say. Bad things suddenly happen to the two killers, and Clyde is obviously the main suspect. That ain’t the story, though. The story’s only getting started. It’s after he’s arrested and imprisoned for his vigilantism against the killers that Clyde REALLY puts his plan into action.

That’s the movie’s hook: How is he perpetrating further acts of mayhem from within the confines of a prison cell? What is his master plan? The answers to these questions are laughable when they should have been ingenious. Clyde, like Hannibal Lecter, is portrayed as smarter than everyone around him, a master of multiple technologies and skills. But we only learn about this intelligence and these talents after the fact. At the outset, we know nothing about him except that his family was murdered. After that, he seems to develop new capabilities scene by scene, as required by the plot. At one point he paralyzes someone with a chemical “isolated from the liver of a Caribbean puffer fish.” Mmhmm.

More troubling than this absurd storytelling, however, is the film’s ham-fisted attempts at commentary. Clyde fast becomes one of those movie psychopaths who insist they’re after justice, not revenge, and who say things like, “Lessons not learned in blood are soon forgotten.” He believes that he’s using himself as an indictment of our failed justice system, and the movie — written by Kurt Wimmer (“Ultraviolet”) and directed by F. Gary Gray (“The Italian Job”) — seems to agree with him. The lawyers and judges, all soft on crime, are more interested in getting what they want than in seeing real justice done, even if it means circumventing the law. “What about his civil rights?” someone asks before breaking into a suspect’s property without a warrant. “F*** his civil rights!” replies Nick. Yeah! You tell him!

But wait a minute. In another instance, a judge signs off on a rather shaky warrant that we, the viewers, know will lead to apprehending a criminal. The movie suggests she’s shady for going along with it — Clyde punishes her — even while reminding us that it’s the thing that will result in justice being done. So what’s the message? Must civil rights and due process ALWAYS be followed, no matter what? Or is it occasionally OK to skip them for the greater good? This scatterbrained action thriller wants to have it both ways.

It doesn’t give us anyone to root for, either. On the one hand there’s the bloodthirsty killer who started out with understandable frustrations but went off the deep end. On the other hand there’s the dour, soulless lawyer who ignores his family and barely cracks a smile (no small feat for the normally charismatic Jamie Foxx). Who is our hero here? I don’t like either of them, and both men’s actions are wrong (legally, morally, or ethically) much of the time. Are we even supposed to sympathize with either of them? If so, why? If not, why are we watching this?

D+ (1 hr., 48 min.; R, abundant harsh profanity, some grisly images and some graphic violence.)