You’ve probably seen The Dark Knight, so imagine what that movie would have been like if the Joker had been the hero. That’s the basic idea of Law Abiding Citizen. The Joker is Clyde Shelton (Gerard Butler, looking much more vulnerable than he did in 300), who has an experience in the first scene that would probably drive most people to super-villainhood. Two men, Ames and Dalby, break into his home, stab him, and rape and murder his wife and daughter.
Playing opposite Butler is Jamie Fox as assistant Philadelphia D.A. Nick Rice, who prosecutes the two defendants. The case draws a bad judge, who suppresses DNA evidence, making Nick nervous as to whether he can win. Nick then has the unpleasant task of telling Clyde that he feels he has no choice but to offer Dalby a plea bargain to testify against Ames and put Ames on death row. Clyde, of course, begs him not to do it.
As a prosecutor, I identified with Nick’s struggle a great deal. Prosecutors have to work in a flawed system, concerned more with the rights of criminals than those of victims, and we have to make a lot of hard choices. Nick’s decision is based partly on a belief that he has no choice and that “some justice is better than no justice at all.” However, he is also motivated partly by the desire to preserve his 96% conviction rate, and his ambition to one day become D.A. He devastates Clyde when he makes the deal.
The scene switches to ten years later. Nick witnesses Ames’ execution, when something goes horribly wrong (or maybe right). As the serum slips into Ames, he begins to writhe and scream. The serum is supposed to bring about death painlessly, but Ames dies in agony. It is later discovered that somebody switched the canister of serum for another chemical. Meanwhile, Dalby, a free man, finds himself drugged and kidnapped by Clyde, and strapped to a gurney, where Clyde explains everything he’s going to do to him in painful detail, before slowly cutting Dalby’s body apart while Dalby screams (the explanation comes in handy because the audience is mercifully spared most of what happens).
Clyde is arrested and interrogated by – you guessed it – Nick. He offers confessions in exchange for being provided luxuries during his pre-trial custody. Ever-concerned about his conviction rate, Nick agrees to purchase the confessions. However, it soon becomes clear that Clyde was planning on being “caught” the whole time. From inside a jail cell, he begins to unfold his plan for retribution against the entire corrupt legal system, saving Nick for last.
Law Abiding Citizen is one of few movies that I have seen that actually give an accurate portrayal of the legal world. I definitely identified with the struggles – both external and internal – that prosecutors must face. We live in a dark world, and I often wonder how civilization holds together at all. Much like The Dark Knight, however, the realism breaks down as Clyde’s homicidal antics go further and further. It’s impossible to believe one man could hold an entire city hostage from inside a jail cell, even with ten years to plan. Foxx and Butler both turn in tour-de-force acting jobs and involve the audience in their struggles. We tend to root for Nick, and yet we can’t help but feel angry with him for chickening out and playing politics. Meanwhile, it’s fun at first to watch Clyde get his vengeance, but he goes way too far. The supporting cast also does a great job. Some of the most memorable shots are of people’s faces when they realize they are about to die – not an easy thing to pull off. Colm Meany gets a rare heroic roll, and actually survives the whole movie.
This is one of those movies not everyone will enjoy, but everyone should see.
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