Death wish 300: Law-Abiding Citizen (no stars)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 17, 2009)

Man of few words: Gerard Butler studies his line.

Matt Groening published a panel back in 1985 entitled “How to be a Clever Film Critic”, challenging wannabe Eberts and Kaels to ask themselves (among other things) this soul-searching question: “Do you thrill at the prospect of spending a career writing in-depth analyses of movies aimed at sub-literate 15 year-olds?” After suffering through Law Abiding Citizen, let’s just say… I’m doing a little soul-searching.

 “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”

M.K. Gandhi

 “Revenge is a dish best served cold.”

from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Basically, I am a man of peace. But I do love me a cathartic revenge fantasy every now and then (helps to purge all the bad thoughts). After all, it’s been a popular meme in cinema, from Tod Browning’s silent Revenge (1918) to Tarantino’s Kill Bill saga (if you search “revenge” on the Internet Movie Database, it yields nearly 5,000 titles). Call it what you will-tit for tat, squaring accounts, settling the score, quid pro quo-the desire for reciprocity runs deep in our DNA.

That  said, there are different sub-categories of revenge flicks. When I say I “enjoy” the odd revenge tale, I’m thinking along the lines of narratives where the antagonist receives just desserts; but not necessarily by violence (yet still served up cold). Examples? Wall Street, Michael Clayton, The Politician’s Wife, Dangerous Liaisons (OK, that involved some bloodletting-but you get my point). Then you have revenge films in the “put your brain on hold” category like Law Abiding Citizen, the new star vehicle for Beefcake du Jour, Gerard Butler (who also produced), which has plenty o’ violence.

Butler is an “ordinary citizen” named Clyde Shelton (we’ll address the “law-abiding” part of the equation shortly). The filmmakers, in their eagerness to plunge the audience headfirst into the squishy viscera of righteous retribution, jump right to it while the opening credits are still warm.

Clyde, appearing to be a mild-mannered inventor-tinkerer type, is enjoying a Hallmark evening at home with his lovely wife and adorable little girl (obviously, they’re doomed). Enter a trailer-trash variation on Alex and his droogs, a pair of hygienically-challenged home invaders who wreak mayhem on the family, leaving Clyde maimed and his wife and daughter dead.

Fast-forward to the trial, where assistant D.A. Nick Rice (Jamie Foxx, phoning it in) is directed by his superiors to negotiate a reduced sentence plea bargain for one of the murderers in exchange for damning testimony against his accomplice (much to Clyde’s chagrin).

Fast-forward another 10 years; the snitch is released from the joint, while his ex-partner sits on Death Row. D. A. Rice gets a disturbing visit from Clyde, who has become an ominous figure in the interim. When the freed killer turns up murdered, Clyde does everything imaginable to implicate himself as prime suspect, short of making a legally admissible confession, and is soon in jail. From this point forward (that would be the remaining three-quarters of the film) the narrative begins to hemorrhage logic from the gaping holes in its cliché-riddled script, as Clyde turns into a cartoon Bond villain.

Frankly, what I found troubling about the film is that while slickly dressed up as a polemic about our broken justice system, in reality it is an ugly piece of reactionary torture porn, somewhere between “Dirty” Harry Callahan’s re-imagining of “justice” as a one-man court system and the Gospel according to Jack Bauer.

I don’t deny that there are problems with our criminal justice system, but I am not sure that vigilantism, assassinating judges, blowing up federal buildings…well, basically engaging in domestic terrorism is the best message to put out there as to how one might go about reforming it (and even more unsettling to me were the audience members who were literally cheering this behavior).

This film will likely make a ton of money (Butler is scheduled to host SNL later this evening, which I’m sure will bolster ticket sales). That makes me sad, somehow. The biggest “injustice” of all? Hollywood continues to get away with churning out this offal. Oh well, I guess there’s no use getting myself all riled up. I could shoot my eye out.

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