In Law Abiding Citizen, the good guy is a well-dressed, self-righteous, rude lawyer who tangles with the bad guy, a scruffy, rather polite, intelligent psychopath. And as a result, it’s relatively easy to begin rooting for the bad guy to slaughter everyone, and the sooner the better, before boredom sets in. Ten years ago Clyde Shelton (Butler) saw his family murdered at the hands of two goons. Lawyer Nick Rice (Foxx) winds up making a deal with one murderer so that the other one can go to the chair; it’s suggested that Nick has done this so as not to besmirch his near-perfect record. So in the present day, Clyde goes on a rampage to destroy a “broken system.”
This dull film carries just a few hints that the screenplay may once have been a bit darker. Nick, who backstabs and cuts corners and neglects his wife and daughter, may have been the villain of the piece, and Clyde, who wants to avenge his wife and daughter and lash out against corruption, may have been an anti-hero. But director F. Gary Gray either didn’t notice or decided to ignore this crazy strain, and brings Law Abiding Citizen to the big screen in the form of a routine thriller (it’s not unlike Untraceable, or the remake of The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, or a dozen others).
It doesn’t help that Foxx gives a rigid, unsympathetic performance, as if viewers are automatically supposed to fall at his feet. By contrast, Pelham’s Denzel Washington can usually play these kinds of shady parts with alluring magnetism (did Washington turn this down before it was passed to Foxx?). Butler fares only slightly better, but only because of his smarter dialogue; he shows more synapses here than in his usual meathead roles (though Pelham’s John Travolta is a better scenery-chewer). Director Gray gives all this an impersonal once-over, throwing in some very obvious, telegraphed violent outbursts and explosions. If Clyde spent 10 years working out his meticulous plan, the least the filmmakers could have done is given it more than a few seconds of thought.