As a kid I remember reading in either CRACKED or MAD magazine a parody about movie heroes and villains. The story pointed out how, very often, heroes are much ruder and less well behaved than villains. For example, James Bond will burst into an enemy hideout; the villain will remark, "ah... Mr. Bond. Welcome to my humble abode." And Bond will say, "I'm going to take you down, you snake!" That's a crude example, but you get the drift. The new Law Abiding Citizen is like that, all the way through. The hero is a slick, well-dressed sort who is more concerned with his personal advancement than with the well-being of others. The villain is a highly intelligent, highly trained killer who is trying to rid the world of something broken and corrupt. The villain longs for his dead wife and daughter, while the hero neglects his wife and daughter. Whenever they meet, the villain speaks cordially to the hero, and the hero snaps back with a nasty attitude.
I suspect that, at some point, some clever screenwriter -- perhaps credited writer Kurt Wimmer -- intended all this stuff on purpose, like a subversive, twisted version of the usual Hollywood thriller dynamic. But director F. Gary Gray either did not pick this up or has chosen to ignore it, and presents Law Abiding Citizen as a straight-ahead thriller. Likewise, Jamie Foxx, cast as the good guy lawyer, seems to expect his natural charisma to make up for his character's moral center, and his performance comes across as rigid and unsympathetic. As the bad guy, Gerard Butler fares only slightly better, but only because his character is smarter, with more playful dialogue. Ten years ago, loving family man Clyde Shelton (Butler) is enjoying an evening with his family; his daughter is making him a sweet little "daddy" bracelet, when two thugs come to the door and slaughter the loving wife and child. Lawyer Nick Rice (Foxx) is assigned to the case, but when one of the thugs makes a deal to turn in the other one in exchange for a lighter sentence, Nick takes the deal; he's lobbying for a promotion and doesn't want to sully his near-perfect courtroom victory record. This sends Rupert Ames (Josh Stewart) to the execution chamber, while Clarence Darby (Christian Stolte) gets a light prison sentence. A decade later, in the present day, someone sabotages Ames' execution, switching the chemicals to make his death more painful, while Darby is captured and totally dismembered. But that's just the beginning.
Clyde wants to bring down not only the real killers, but also everyone else who was even remotely involved in their court case. You'd think that would make Nick the number one target, but for no particular reason (other than the fact that we wouldn't have a movie), he spares Nick until last. Clyde confesses to the murders of Ames and Darby -- in exchange for a cozy mattress -- and goes to prison. But the murders somehow continue! Nick and his team blunder around cluelessly trying to figure out how he's doing it, and the movie never gives us a real battle of wits. Nick is clearly outmatched at every turn, and only a bit of dumb luck provides a clue to what's really going on. The movie ends, of course, with Nick learning how to slow down and appreciate his family a bit more, but this is very difficult to swallow, given his nearly immobile character arc.
In-between all this character nonsense, director Gray throws in some of the most obvious, telegraphed action and violence sequences. Any seasoned viewer can count down to the exact second that people are going to die, and the movie performs right on schedule, without the slightest effort to mix things up. One death, involving a cell phone, came exactly when I expected it, though I confess the method was quite a bit more gruesome than anticipated. The overall effect of all the violence is about the same -- and even less -- than a standard slasher film; I eventually started hoping that Clyde would accomplish his goal and wipe out all these annoying characters, and the sooner the better.
I kept thinking of last summer's remake of The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, which, goodness knows, was no masterpiece, but at least had a fairly solid character foundation. The dynamic is similar: we have a flawed hero matching wits with a clever villain with a plan. Denzel Washington pulled off his character's dark side with appealing grace; it was easy to understand why he had accepted a bribe. And it was also easy to understand John Travolta's hijacker/murderer, and why these two men might strike up a strange kind of bond. Foxx and Butler have nothing even remotely close to their charisma or chemistry; when they're in the room together, it feels like they can't wait to get away from each other. And the feeling from the audience is mutual.