Law Abiding Citizen (2009)

F. Gary Gray

Jamie Foxx - Nick Rice
Gerard Butler - Clyde Shelton
Bruce McGill - Jonas Cantrell
Colm Meaney - Detective Dunnigan
Leslie Bibb - Sarah Lowell
Regina Hall - Kelly Rice
Viola Davis - Mayor
Christian Stolte - Clarence Darby
Josh Stewart - Rupert Ames

Genre - Thriller/Suspense

Running Time - 108 Minutes

A Philadelphia engineer named Clyde Shelton (Gerard Butler) horrifically watches two men, Clarence Darby (Christian Stolte) and Rupert Ames (Josh Stewart), break into his home and murder both his wife and daughter. Darby and Ames are eventually arrested. However, the district attorney, Nick Rice (Jamie Foxx), makes an interesting deal that allows Darby to go free after a short sentence if he rats out Ames part in the crime. Clyde is pissed off about this turn of events, especially since Darby was the one who committed the murders.

Ten years later, Darby is free while Ames is gearing towards his execution via lethal injection. With Nick present, he watches in horror as something goes seriously wrong with the execution, as Ames dies in agony due to a tampering with the chemicals. Believing Darby is behind it, the authorities go after him. But Darby is tipped off by someone, allowing him to get away. This someone is Clyde in disguise, wanting revenge on Darby by kidnapping him and paralyzing him from the neck down with some sort of chemical. Clyde proceeds to chop Darby into pieces to complete the act. Clyde then lets himself get arrested for his crimes.

Now a prisoner, Clyde continues his revenge on those who let Darby get out of his true sentence. Using Nick as a puppet, Clyde tells him that unless he receives certain favors, traps that he had set around the city will come into play and cause some major harm. Apparently, Clyde is playing murderous games with Nick and his legal team from behind prison bars, trying to prove that he doesn't have to be present in order for all of them to be killed by his hands.


- Clyde Shelton. The character of Clyde Shelton is just awesome from beginning to end, due to his characterization by screenwriter, Kurt Wimmer. The character has such an interesting arc and so many twists and turns, that you can't help but enjoy him, his motives, and his actions. Clyde is a character made for professional wrestling. He's the likeable, sympathetic good guy who's family was killed in front of his eyes for no justified reason. When he decides to take matters into his own hands and gets revenge on those who couldn't right the wrong, we root for him and want him to succeed. When we begin to learn that Clyde is not really the man we believe him to be from the start, we feel manipulated and start to dislike him a bit. But then, when Clyde starts managing to get the best of Nick and his legal team by killing people behind bars, we start to see him as cool. The guy is intelligent. The guy is cunning. The guy is backing up what he says without a bit of hesitation. How can we not respect someone like that, even if what they're doing is wrong? He suddenly becomes oddly likeable again. Clyde is written so simple, yet has so many complex layers that he's the most fleshed out character in LAW ABIDING CITIZEN. No one else comes close. This proves to be a problem during the final act, due to how it plays out. But other than that, Clyde is a great character to watch.

- The acting. Gerard Butler's work in LAW ABIDING CITIZEN is great. What could have been a one-note villain, Butler turns into a character with great depth and sympathy. He plays on every emotional cue needed for the role - grief, anger, regret, satisfaction, insanity - it's all there. His exchanges with the other actors grab you the instant he opens his mouth. He pushes people's buttons, he fucks with their heads, and you're convinced by Butler due to his confidence in the role. It's such a different role than what you'd usually expect from him, but he takes it for all its worth and milks the hell out of it. Butler could have played Clyde as a stereotype of what we would expect a villain in a film like this would be like. But he grounds him and keeps him in reality, even through the crazy moments. Butler is the star of this film.

The other actors do their parts mainly well. Jamie Foxx is okay as Nick. I'll get into his character later, but Foxx played the cocky, slightly dirty lawyer pretty well. I do think he was out shined by Butler in every exchange they had, but Foxx wasn't bad. I do think anyone could have played this role though without much difference. But it was credible enough. Leslie Bibb was quite good as Nick's protege, who has a bit of regret in helping Nick at times. She plays Sarah with class, acting quite believably as Nick's conscience. Regina Hall was also very good as Nick's wife. Nice to see her in a dramatic role instead of those SCARY MOVIE films. Viola Davis gives a powerful performance as the Mayor, while Annie Corley chews the scenery as a power-hungry judge. Always nice to see Colm Meaney as well in anything. Nice cast who took the script seriously and played along with the best of their abilities. I bought most of what they presented on screen.

- The direction. F. Gary Gray does a very good job keeping LAW ABIDING CITIZEN visually interesting. The film looks great, picture wise. The editing is solid. The pace is fantastic, as the film never lets up right from the beginning. There's a decent amount of tension and suspense throughout the film. I even thought Gray brought a bit of style to this thriller as well. The film is an entertaining ride, even though some of it tends to be a bit implausible in terms of narrative and story structure. But Gray tries to make those moments fun to watch as well, so I can't knock the direction at all.

- The first two acts. LAW ABIDING CITIZEN is obviously inspired by DEATH WISH, with the main character's family getting killed in front of him, which obviously causes him to deal justice in his own hands. However, Kurt Wimmer wants to take that idea and make it bigger and add more mystery to it. The fact that Wimmer makes Clyde into a sympathetic villain is an interesting challenge, as I'm sure some people will have trouble rooting for the guy once he starts becoming more maniacal [not me, I liked him more as Clyde started to turn devious in his tactics]. But the set up, I thought, was actually pretty cool. It starts out as DEATH WISH, turns into a mini-SAW [when Clyde gets revenge on Darby], and then starts going into a psuedo-SILENCE OF THE LAMBS mode where Clyde is this ultra-intelligent mastermind who has all the cards and will use them to get what he wants. He curses out judges for believing in him, he kills cell mates to prove a point, and does other nasty things to show Nick and his team that he's the one really in charge. Instead of a "whodunit?" type of mystery, we ask "how does he do it?" instead. And while I'll get to that answer in the MISSES section, at least we're never bored and it's a fun ride getting to the reveal. It's just too bad the film starts to unravel once it gears towards the finale, but it's very entertaining getting there.


- The final act. I know cinema, a lot of the time, expects viewers to stretch their suspension of disbelief when it comes to certain plot devices. But LAW ABIDING CITIZEN takes it to another level. As much as Clyde is made to be this genius mastermind, the reveal of how he does it seems a bit too far-fetched. This type of plot device belongs in a comic book adaptation, not in a smart, exciting thriller. I kept wondering how NO ONE knew what Clyde was up to, making everyone else in the film look like dumbasses. If the film wasn't trying to be as realistic as possible, it would be totally fine. But it just comes across cartoony, even if I did think it was pretty cool.

As for the climax and resolution, I thought it was just very lame. You set up Clyde so much that the way he gets caught and handled with makes everything before that for naught. I understand the mystery should be solved and the villain needs to be stopped, but the whole thing went against Clyde's character that we were led to believe before this moment arrived. For such an intelligent character, he's made out to be a total putz. I think, while still a bit entertaining, the ending fell apart.

- Who are we supposed to root for? This may have been my biggest issue with LAW ABIDING CITIZEN - which character am I supposed to sympathize with? At the start, we root for Clyde since his family is the one who gets killed and Nick, wanting to meet some sort of quota to raise his reputation as a lawyer, doesn't give the criminals the justice they probably deserved. But when Clyde starts doing evil things out of revenge and anger, Nick is portrayed as the hero who is out to stop Clyde before he hurts anyone else. It gets really confusing because both men are severely flawed, yet Clyde is so charming and intelligent that you can't help but respect the guy and think he's cool. Nick, on the other hand, ignores his family for his job and is willing to play dirty to make sure he has a clean rep when it comes to his cases. Yet, this cocky bastard is supposed to be the protagonist? I didn't really understand why the narrative needed to do a double turn like this. Even so, it doesn't work! Clyde, even though he's made to be the villain, just has so much depth that makes him charmingly likeable. Nick doesn't give off the same vibe, as his character is a bit too smug to root for. I respect the attempt, but it really doesn't work well here.

LAW ABIDING CITIZEN was one of my favorite films of 2009, and I still enjoy it now. Even with its character and narrative flaws, it still manages to be a good and exciting thriller. Instead of trying to tell a standard revenge story, the twists and turns showed that there were some creative and even thought provoking ideas here. Definitely one of Gerard Butler's best roles and I'm hoping he makes more movies like this one, instead of those lame rom-coms he's been choosing. Just a run ride for much of the runtime that I'm sure many viewers will enjoy.

3 Howls Outta 4


  1. Great review. Totally agree with the points you make. This movie is a blast, yet I was let down by the ending

  2. Yeah, the ending and the entire last act ruins what everything before it set up. It's as if they had no idea how to end the film. Still, it's an entertaining flick. Thanks!

  3. Gerard Butler is so much fun, I'd watch him in anything (even that reputedly terrible Phantom of the Opera movie-I'm sure that at least he's awesome in it).
    Also, have you seen Dracula 2000? I'm curious to how good of a Dracula Butler makes.

  4. Great write-up. The ending was a but weak, but Gerard Butler was excellent.

    Totally agree that he should make more thrillers like this and less romantic comedies.

  5. @Chris - I really like Butler too, even in his worst films. The guy is very charismatic and a decent actor to boot. I just wish he would choose more roles like this one.

    As for DRACULA 2000, I have seen it. It's a guilty pleasure of mine. He's not bad in the role, but nothing that would make anyone into a superstar. You should definitely check it out. I'll most likely review it within the next few months.

    @Ty - Yeah, the ending is really the worst part of this film. The sympathy factor doesn't work, but I can somewhat respect the attempt. The finale, however, has no excuse. It's as if the screenwriter had no real idea how to end it logically. But Butler is the highlight and deserves to be in more films like this, instead of starring with Jennifer Aniston or Katherine Heigl in crappy rom-coms.


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