Do you wanna know who’s really got the power? Bring your ass to the tower.
—Odessa (Ice-T), Ricochet (1991)
On hearing that a psycho killer is committing serial murders from inside his prison cell, Mayor April Henry of Philadelphia (cooler than cool Viola Davis) is annoyed. “You boys,” she seethes at the men she holds responsible, “have fucked this up. The press will kill us.”
Law Abiding Citizen is prone to this sort of comedy, not exactly funny, more smug and clever-seeming. As Mayor Henry scowls at her “boys,” the camera pulls out to show the DA, Jonas (Bruce McGill), and his A-Number One prosecutor Nick (Jamie Foxx) insisting on their manly man skills. “We’re gonna get this guy,” Nick says. “We’re gonna get this situation under control.” Of course they are—but only after the killer, Clyde (Gerard Butler), does more damage, personal and spectacular, to Nick, his primary target and opponent.
The ostensible reason for Clyde’s rage is set up at film’s start, when his suburban serenity is suddenly wrecked by two home-invading mouth-breathers. Trussed up and pounded into the foyer floor, Clyde watches helplessly as the ugliest loudest villain rapes and kills his wife, then drags his precious little daughter off screen for a similar fate. Clyde groans and whimpers and resists, mostly feebly. A fade-out on his last look at the dreadful scene leads to the revelation that Clyde survives this ordeal, and worse, must contend with the legal dealing done in his name by Nick. Explaining the “deal,” Nick asserts, oh-so-cynically, “Some justice is better than no justice at all.”
Nick steps in at this point essentially to revisit the part played by Denzel Washington in Ricochet, the superior first incarnation of Law Abiding Citizen. There, the vengeful widower is John Lithgow: “You killed my life!” he bellows at Washington’s ambitious and selfish prosecutor, demonstrating a flair for colorful phrasing far beyond Clyde, who takes himself much more seriously. Like Washington’s character, also named Nick, Foxx’s Nick is in need of life lessons (and honestly, a gangsta best friend played by Ice-T, sadly missing from the new film). Nick neglects his young, cello-playing daughter (Emerald-Angel Young) or his infinitely patient wife (Regina Hall). Warned repeatedly to rearrange his priorities, he’s only convinced when Clyde delivers his own most banal message: family is the most important thing.
To be fair, Clyde does his best to make this message un-banal (and director F. Gary Gray is no slouch when it comes to action movie business, big orange explosions and smart mobile framing). When Nick explains, “This is the way the justice system works,” Clyde turns his puffy, red-eyed face to the camera and glowers. Nick misses this bit of instruction in consequences, and so Clyde doubles down. He will make his vengeance scheme “biblical.”
It helps Clyde’s instructional inclination that he is a master killer himself. As Nick’s research reveals (see: the film’s plot-divulging trailer), Clyde has been trained, by the U.S. government, in the fine art of assassination. He’s not just a spy, declares the nervous knit-capped informant, “Clyde is a brain and he was the best. If he wants you dead, you’re dead.” (This background detail leaves open the question of how Clyde was so easily overcome by the patently dim-witted home-invaders, but, oh well.)
Once Clyde makes it clear that he is, in fact, directing his rage against “the system,” Nick and company (including a dedicated assistant played by Leslie Bibb) do their mostly feeble best to decipher his plan and means, always a step behind… until the movie must end, they’re not. Before that point, Clyde’s brutality is frankly horrific, his fury a mix of Scorpio and Dirty Harry’s, his methods of torture and technical gimmickry on a par with Jigsaw’s, his repeated displays of arrogance and intellect too like Hannibal Lecter’s.
By comparison, the “boys” are decidedly slow on the uptake, wasting most of their on-screen time reasserting their own impotent anger after each burst of Clyde’s violence. Mayor Henry alternately chides them and seeks solutions premised on her own plainly ineffective municipal apparatus (“We’re gonna lock this city down! Put an armed cop on every corner!”). During her sessions with Nick and Jonas, brief and generic, the mayor must articulate the limits of such scripting (for this, you might blame the writer whose name is on it, Kurt Wimmer). “There must be a provision of the Homeland Security Act that we can activate,” she proclaims, and not one person in the room looks at her like she’s crazy. It could be that her desperation is yet another instance of Law Abiding Citizen‘s perverse sense of humor, a weak joke about the ways that bad legislation is put to bad use in bad situations, maybe even underlining the irony of the film’s title. Or maybe, this preposterousness is just what happens in bad movies.