The real mystery of "Law Abiding Citizen" isn't how Gerard Butler's character manages to wreak explosive, bloody havoc on Philadelphia while confined behind the walls of his jail cell.
What's truly baffling is how the star of the hugely successful "300" has managed to make yet another questionable movie choice since then, following "P.S. I Love You," "The Ugly Truth" and "Gamer." (To be fair, "RocknRolla" was a good fit for him and it was a lot of fun.)
This time, Butler serves as a producer and stars as Clyde Shelton, who watched helplessly as his wife and young daughter were murdered during a home invasion. Ten years later, he's out for revenge _ not just against the killer who went free after testifying against his accomplice, but against the entire judicial system.
He gets himself intentionally arrested to go after his ultimate target, Nick Rice (Jamie Foxx, looking bored), the slick prosecutor who cut that deal a decade ago to maintain his high conviction rate. But first he takes out everyone around Nick in ridiculously elaborate fashion, to the growing frustration of the mayor, played by Viola Davis. (Naturally, Davis has great presence in her few scenes, but one woman alone can't save this film.)
Clyde's impossible omniscience and his sadistically convoluted game-playing feel like a rip-off of the "Saw" franchise, and the banter he shares with Nick makes "Law Abiding Citizen" seem like a poor man's "Silence of the Lambs." His tactics become so predictable, you know the second you hear a ringing cell phone or see a character climb into a car that something is going to blow up real good, real soon.
F. Gary Gray ("The Italian Job") dully directs Kurt Wimmer's over-the-top script with a misty, bleached-out aesthetic that only makes the movie feel like more of a drag. The mind wanders; distracting questions arise. If Clyde has been focused on nothing but revenge for the past 10 years, how can he afford all the high-tech explosives and ammunition he's amassed? Having seen human lives taken right before his eyes and knowing their value, does he feel even vaguely remorseful about killing others? And what sort of ice cream might taste good once the movie is over?
"Law Abiding Citizen" asks us to remain firmly on Clyde's side even as the body count of decent, innocent people piles up, but it's a tough request. He's meant to be not just a purveyor of vigilante justice but a crusader. But he gets off on the carnage too much, and the empty, repetitive conversations he has with Nick do nothing to humanize either man. And so in the end, all we're left with are ticking time bombs and a chunk of our own time that we'll never get back.
"Law Abiding Citizen," an Overture Films release, is rated R for strong bloody brutal violence and torture, a scene of rape, and pervasive language. Running time: 101 minutes. One star out of four.
Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:
G _ General audiences. All ages admitted.
PG _ Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
PG-13 _ Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.
R _ Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
NC-17 _ No one under 17 admitted.
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