Movie Review – Law Abiding Citizen (2009)



Law Abiding Citizen is an elaborately plotted revenge fantasy starring Gerard Butler as a crime victim with a vendetta against the justice system that allowed his family’s killer to go free. Jamie Foxx plays the district attorney who bears main responsibility for the miscarriage of justice. F. Gary Gray directed and Kurt Wimmer is responsible for the script.

The set-up is as follows. A burglar who can only be charged with murder thanks to the felony-murder statute since he never even touched the victims receives the death penalty while the psychotic with a long criminal record who master-minded the home invasion, stabbed the husband with intent to kill, raped and murdered the wife, and murdered the couple’s young daughter is offered a plea bargain where he will serve only a few years in jail in exchange for testimony against his confederate who was practically a bystander to the crime by comparison despite the husband’s eyewitness identification of the killer, after which the DA who engineered this deal in a case that is a cause célèbre (for obvious reasons) not only does not face a firestorm of public and media criticism, but rather continues to prosper in his political-legal career.

Let’s get this out of the way and move on: This absurd set-up is only the beginning. The plot of Law Abiding Citizen is ludicrous. One ludicrous situation, plot “twist,” and “shocking revelation” follows another. Nothing that happens is logical, plausible, or grounded in realistic character psychology. The filmmakers’ tactic to keep the audience guessing is to continually do things that make no sense.

Foxx goes through the motions in a thankless role. Butler seems more engaged, but even his considerable charisma is crushed by the scripting. Colm Meaney, Leslie Bibb, and Bruce McGill each has a scene or two to make one wish they weren’t wasted in this movie. Really though, given the pervasive absurdity and perfunctory characterization it seems largely beside the point to even evaluate the acting.

Law Abiding Citizen is inept, but more than that it is confused. The film stumbles around in search of a purpose. Does it want to horrify? To shock? To thrill? To engage the audience’s emotions? It stumbles from one genre and storyline to another. It’s a sensationalistic expose of the criminal justice system, a horror film, an investigative thriller, a revenge drama, a cat-and-mouse and race against time thriller, a “why is daddy never home” domestic drama. What may have been intended as mind games with the audience come across as a product of the writer and director’s indecisiveness. Are we supposed to be moved by what happens to these two men? Is the ending meant to be cathartic? Ironic? Who knows. By the end of this mess of a film, who could possibly care whether either one of them lives or dies?

1/2 star

11 responses to “Movie Review – Law Abiding Citizen (2009)

  1. It’s funny how every showing has been sold out for this film, so far this weekend and I hadn’t even heard of this film until this week. Keep in mind I do not watch TV. I saw its trailer a couple of days back and thought, “here’s another cat-and-mouse-chase type story where the guy behind bars calls all of the shots…” and I was right but I never expected it to receive the terrible criticism that it has. It’s currently at 22% on RT and no one, aside from critics seems to say anything about it.

    Not having seen it or even planning to (thank you Helen) I have two things to say: 1) “Black Dynamite” should be the film to see. I’ve been waiting to see it for half a year now and it’s finally in theatres, and on RT it’s at 84%. And 2) Kurt Wimmer wrote and directed “Equilibrium”, which is a phenomenally intellectual and bad-ass action flick and then he followed it up with the devastatingly horrible “Ultraviolet”. I suppose “Law Abiding Citizen” was a given; we should have known this was coming.

  2. I didn’t see a trailer for Law Abiding Citizen or a commercial (I don’t watch TV either), but I wish I had as it would very likely have dissuaded me from seeing it. I think I could have enjoyed the same plot if it had been played as a tongue-in-cheek, over-the-top exercise in absurdity ala Shoot ’em Up instead of as heavy drama. It’s incredible to me that I was expected to take this material seriously.

    I also liked Equilibrium a lot. I did not see Ultraviolet and LAC does not encourage me to go back and give it a try.

  3. Ugh, this is dissapointing.

    What with Gamer and now Law Abiding Citizen, Butler seems to be wasting his talent.

  4. The really sad thing is that Gamer is a much better film than Law Abiding Citizen.

  5. THAT’s creepy.

  6. I’ll give you that Gamer was better, but because of the pure absurdity of this film, I enjoyed watching it.

    However, the ending of this movie was one of the worst that I’ve seen. Extremely anti-climactic and defeats the entire purpose of a monolouge that took place just 5 seconds before.

    I had fun watching it (It was my mother’s b-day.) but it was ultimately pointless.

  7. I saw one reviewer who thought it was trying to be an amped up vengeance/vigilante movie, perhaps a 21st century Death Wish where the ‘eye for a eye’ logic was carried to its extreme limit. I’m not going to see the movie so I will ask for your thoughts on that possible interpretation.

  8. That is one possible interpretation, yes.

  9. @Miriam: By and large I agree with that interpretation, although the film undercuts itself in a couple of ways. Butler’s vigilante character talks a good line about bringing the city/system to its knees, but fritters away a lot of time killing off flunkies to teach Foxx’s DA a life lesson, Saw-style. Then when his grand design slash big finale is finally unveiled, it’s not very grand in scope.

  10. This is the main reasno I read Unbelievable posts.

  11. …Unbelievably good posts. :OD
    I agree that this film undermines itself throughout. It doesn’t make sense from the beginning to the end and the DA (played by Foxx) is one stupid MF.


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