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Wednesday, February 3, 2010

LAW ABIDING CITIZEN -- DVD review by porfle

Recently I praised the 1985 BBC mini-series "Edge of Darkness" for not being just another "father's revenge" flick. Now I'm jazzed about LAW ABIDING CITIZEN (2009) for being exactly that, only moreso--this time the vengeful dad doesn't just go after the scum who killed his family, but he takes on the entire justice system that failed to adequately punish them in the first place. And the ways in which he does this are downright exhilarating.

Clyde Shelton (Gerard Butler of 300) is the happy husband and father who survives a terrifying home invasion which leaves his wife and daughter brutally murdered. To his dismay, ambitious young assistant D.A. Nick Rice (Jamie Foxx) cuts a plea bargain with the worst of the two killers to insure that the other will be convicted. This means that while accomplice Ames (Josh Stewart) lands on death row, the monstrous Darby (Christian Stolte) will be back on the streets in a few years. Nick considers this a good enough deal--"Better some justice than none at all", he tells his mentor, D.A. Jonas Cantrell (Bruce McGill)--but the devastated Clyde finds it utterly unacceptable, and spends the next ten years slowly and methodically planning his revenge.

How that plays out is what makes LAW ABIDING CITIZEN so entertaining. Clyde displays an almost godlike ability to influence events from afar, as seen when he somehow manages to turn Ames' simple execution by lethal injection into a horror show. Then comes his capture and slow dissection of the loathesome Darby in an elaborate warehouse torture chamber, in a sequence that gives us such vicarious satisfaction it's almost scary.

We wonder what Clyde's up to when he willingly allows himself to be taken into custody, but this becomes quite clear during his bail hearing (which he turns into a glorious shambles as the indignant judge, played by Annie Corley, bangs away furiously with her gavel) and subsequent cat-and-mouse encounters with Nick. The game quickly escalates when more people involved with the original trial start to get killed in nasty ways while Clyde sits in his jail cell, somehow orchestrating the whole thing.

One thing that makes the film so interesting for me is that there's no clear-cut good guy or bad guy. Clyde is clearly the avenging hero early on, and even when his actions begin to go far beyond any acceptable idea of revenge (in movie terms, anyway), I can't help but continue to root for him on some level. Nick, on the other hand, comes across as a shallow, self-interested jerk during his early dealings with Clyde, but once he becomes a father himself and begins to understand what would drive a man to do such things--while finally realizing that there's more to justice than making deals--his character gradually becomes more sympathetic (although he never fully redeems himself in my mind). In the end, our feelings towards both characters remain intriguingly complicated.

Action scenes alternate with tense dialogue exchanges between the leads, who are both excellent in their roles. Gerard Butler puts a lot of feeling into his early scenes as Clyde pleads with Nick not to bargain with his daughter's killer, and later transforms into an unstoppable opponent without becoming a cold, stereotypical villain. As Nick, Jamie Foxx proves once again that he has the talent and screen presence to handle this sort of dramatic role very well. Bruce McGill (hard to believe he was D-Day in ANIMAL HOUSE) is solid as the wise old D.A. and Leslie Bibb (IRON MAN, WRISTCUTTERS:A LOVE STORY) is likable as Nick's partner, Sarah. As the no-nonsense mayor, Viola Davis makes a strong impression, while the always-reliable Colm Meaney's "Detective Dunnigan" is a tough guy from the old school.

Director F. Gary Gray gives the film much of the same snappy, fast-moving energy that made his remake of THE ITALIAN JOB one of my favorite recent action flicks, although this material really could've benefitted from a darker sensibility such as that shown by David Fincher in SE7EN. Kurt Wimmer's screenplay is sharp and often scintillating. The rich cinematography and shadowy lighting convey what is described as "neo-noir", with actual courthouse and prison locations in Philadelphia serving as photogenic backdrops. There's a moody score by Brian Tyler (FRAILTY), with a special treat for Grand Funk Railroad fans during the closing credits.

The DVD from Anchor Bay is in 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen and 5.1 Dolby Surround, with English and Spanish subtitles. Extras include a fun commentary track with producers Lucas Foster and Alan Siegel, trailers, and three featurettes: "The Justice of 'Law Abiding Citizen'", with actual lawyers weighing in on the movie's events; "Law in Black and White--Behind the Scenes"; and "Preliminary Arguments--The Visual Effects of 'Law Abiding Citizen'."

There's a fair number of thrills, shocks, and twists in LAW ABIDING CITIZEN, and the moral ambiguities raise some interesting questions to ponder (yeah, right) along the way. But most of all, watching Gerard Butler's character exact righteous revenge against his family's killers and then run roughshod over what he calls a "broken" legal system, while plunging the entire city of Philadelphia into turmoil with his delightfully outlandish acts of mayhem, is just plain fun.

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