F Gary Gray’s film is many things – a vaguely preposterous thriller; a revenge tale with more than a little post-millennial gornogrpahy thrown in; a hokey action mystery; what it isn’t is a critique of either the morals of the legal system or the justifications for violence, despite its attempts at injecting a little "food for thought" into all its explosions and macho male bluster.
Gerard Butler is Clyde Shelton, an mighty unfortunate fella who witnesses the brutal murder of his wife and child before then seeing their sadistic killer walk free at the hands of the legal system, Jamie Foxx’s prosecuting lawyer Nick Rice shaking his hand no less. "It’s not what you know it’s what you can prove" may be the MO of contemporary legal theatrics, but it doesn’t pass muster for Clyde. A former CIA operative trained in disposing of people, he takes it upon himself not just to redress the balance on those who murdered his family, but to turn the whole judicial system on its head, punishing the guilty and teaching those embroiled up in its machinations (we call them lawyers) the true meaning of ‘justice.’
It all works well enough as an entertaining slice of escapism, Clyde’s own particular brand of DIY-law enforcing has no need for lawyers or judges and plenty of need for scalpels, high calibre weaponry and military grade explosives. He sets traps and runs rings around his prey, his government-taught skills as a master of death and deception proving invaluable tools in his battle with Philadelphia’s legal profession and county hierarchy. But in setting up this roster of calculated misdirection the film quickly abandons reality and, indeed, logic as it veers from the improbable to the damn near impossible, each and every movement in Clyde’s escalating plan stretching credibility.
His opponent in this vindictive and vicious bout of intellectual sparring, Nick, is a work addicted suit (his cell phone is always ringing and he can’t find the time for his daughter’s cello recital) with little charm or warmth, a lawyer intent on climbing the ladder for personal gain rather than for love of the law. While this is surely intended to highlight the misguided moral compass of those practising the law, it makes for an oddly balanced film, particularly when his monstrous opposition, the doting family man turned mercenary prone to lopping off people’s eyelids, is easier to empathise with.The film is also remarkably heavy-handed in places too. Supporting characters sit around and debate the merits and morals of their chosen profession, and the Philadelphia setting is perhaps intended to capture some of that city’s role in the United States development as a democracy, but these attempts at adding social commentary or political subtext come across more as an afterthought, a superficial addition to the carnage and mayhem. It wants to be a movie that provokes debate and discussion – what would I do in the same situation? Does the legal system really work? Is a biblical ‘eye for an eye’ approach to violence just? But the only questions it is really likely to provoke are the ones concerning the numerous plot holes Kurt Wimmer’s script throws up. It’s an enjoyably unpredictable action thriller, but not half as smart as it thinks it is.
EXTRAS ★★★ As well as the "harder" Director's Cut of the film, you also get a bunch of featurettes: Law in Black And White – Behind The Scenes; The Justice of Law Abiding Citizen; Preliminary Arguments – Visual Effects Progressions; and Trailer Mash-Up. Plus there's the theatrical trailer.