Sometimes, your fellow audience at the cinema plays quite a part in the movie you watch. They can yap all the way through a deeply poignant picture with many scenes of quiet contemplation. They can open packets of chips when someone’s whispering an important line. They can be tall and sitting in front of you—the most abominable of all cinema tomfoolery. During our viewing of entertaining action frenzy Law Abiding Citizen, I felt like someone should have been recording audience reaction.
When something gory happened—and it wasn’t just once—everyone joined in a moving chorus of “ewwww”. When something surprising happened, the entire audience would rock back, gasping in shock. If something was funny, the theatre next door knew about it too. Someone kindly brought their small baby into this 9:30pm session, and occasionally said child would also participate in the reactions, though usually off-cue and with more of a “waahhh”, which I translated as “Hey mum and dad, I know you aren’t aware of this but you just let me witness a dismembering and I am now traumatised forever, thank you very much.”
It was the kind of movie that demanded a visceral reaction. With a startling opening scene that doesn’t beat around the bush—just around Gerard Butler’s head—you are firmly on the side of Butler’s Clyde Shelton, who witnesses the senseless murder of his wife and daughter while completely powerless to stop it. Attorney Nick Rice, played by Eric Bishop (otherwise known as Jamie “I am so awesome that one X can’t explain it alone” Foxx), is hoping to keep his 96% conviction rate, and makes a deal with one of the murderers so that he testifies against the other (and arguably more blameless) one and gets a light sentence while the other gets the death penalty. Clyde is understandably upset that Rice won’t stand up for him, but as Foxx points out with complete lack of any emotion or charisma, with the damaged evidence they have, it’s better to get some conviction that none.
Ten years pass. Rice is going up in the world; you can tell because his appearance is identical but his wife’s hair is nicer. Played by Regina Hall, until now known mostly for screeching and giving one of the Jigsaw villains a sexually transmitted disease as Brenda in the Scary Movie franchise, she is Rice’s missing moral compass and unimpressed by the fact he has yet to turn up to one of his daughter’s cello recitals. We join Rice as he escorts his protégé Sarah to witness the execution of one of the Shelton family murderers. What should have been a nice day out at a death scene turns into unspeakable horror when the execution does not go to plan. And at this point you strap yourself in and watch Clyde Shelton as he turns the tables on an entire city, from the two pathetic killers to everyone who let his family down by allowing the justice system to dictate what common sense says was wrong.
When Clyde, arrested for the murders of the two murderers, explains to a shocked courtroom exactly why the system is wrong, it’s one of the most entertaining scenes I’ve seen. He berates them for planning to let him go due to lack of evidence and is sent back to prison where—despite being behind bars—nothing stops him from killing off the people who let him down. And at first, you’re cheering for him. His family didn’t receive justice. You don’t feel bad for the murderers’ painful deaths; instead, you revel in it like you can only in fiction. But he walks a thin line from the start, and barely halfway through the film, pretty much jumps over it and does a little dance. His methods of killing remain fascinating in a repulsive way—and will scare you away from your mobile phone forever—and are a large part of what keeps you watching this movie, which is essentially a big stupid blockbuster.
One of the movie’s major flaws is Foxx himself, who, despite winning an Oscar for Ray, is absolutely unappealing in this movie as ice. From his unflagging arrogance to his lack of anguish regarding the death of those around him, it appears he took this role for the money and didn’t bother to invest his character with any depth. The rest of the cast holds up well, with Butler filled with calculated blind rage and occasionally abandoning himself to a moment of grief; Regina Hall devastated at Foxx’s terrible acting; their daughter, played by Emerald-Angel Young, filled with adoration for her father even though he is completely useless; and Rice’s protégés all realistic, mostly because they wonder if perhaps they brought this upon themselves, when Foxx blusters about declaring he has never done a thing wrong. I’m not advocating mass murder for revenge, but Foxx’s lack of remorse just renders him completely unlikeable. As a result, you’re not quite sure who you’re supposed to be siding with—Butler’s wronged but clearly overreacting victim? Foxx’s permanently cranky lawyer with nothing but nice ties to redeem him? The only likeable character who gets exploded about two-thirds of the way through the movie?
The biggest problem with this movie, overpowering even Foxx—or perhaps because of him—is the ending. Up until the last ten minutes you’ve been enjoying the ride, covering your eyes from the icky parts, having moments of quiet reflection regarding the fairness of the justice system in regards to the victim, and laughing maniacally when someone gets their overdone comeuppance. Then the ending comes—altogether ridiculous even in this movie’s reality, with a lack of police backup in a highly secure area, then a move by Foxx that baffles all notion of time and, well, sanity, and will surely have made for a mass of awkward paperwork for whoever deals with such dramatic and violent happenings.
In summary, go see it for kicks—then leave just as Foxx and the much better named Colm Meaney are speeding to town hall, and paste the ending of Bernard and Manny’s kids story from Black Books on instead: “Then they all drank lemonade. The End!”