Wednesday, October 14, 2009

When movie stars should send screenwriters to jail: Law Abiding Citizen

Just before Clarence Darby (Christian Stolte) jabs a blade into his guts, just before Darby proceeds to rape and kill his wife and do about the same to his little girl, Clyde Shelton (Gerard Butler) hears this fat, sweaty, slovenly, drug-addled, disgusting pervert-ogre whisper in his ear, “You can’t fight fate.” Even by the standards of the overcharged Hollywood thriller this is
ultra-portentous. Clyde takes it to heart. He stews over it for ten years, during which time Darby’s accomplice awaits execution while Darby himself does three years and goes free as thanks from the DA for ratting his buddy out. For ten years Clyde gets stoked on the ineffectuality of American justice and concocts a whopper of a plan to set things straight.

The central conceit of
Law Abiding Citizen, that grief and frustration turns a contented family man and otherwise non-psychopathic maniac into Hannibal Lecter on steroids, could only have ever worked as utter camp. As an ostensibly serious, ostensibly engaging, ostensibly dark and brooding thriller about thorny issues of crime, punishment and bureaucracy, it’s a mind-numbingly absurd travesty of a movie. Clyde kidnaps Darby and slowly, messily tortures him to death, making imaginative use of power tools a poison isolated from the liver of a Caribbean puffer fish. Of course! It’s only his opening act. He gets thrown into maximum security and his rampage only escalates. Somehow he keeps exacting his flamboyant, baroque feats of violent revenge from captivity, gradually killing off anyone with even the most tangential connection to his case. Except for Nick Rice (Jamie Foxx), the attorney who made the deal with Darby. Nick gets to watch as the whole house of cards collapses, wondering when he or his wife and daughter will get iced. Clyde and Nick play cat and mouse.

You don’t need a degree in law, psychology or engineering to balk at the mountain of risible improbability
Law Abiding Citizen hinges on. Genius serial killers are among the most tiresome tropes, but Clyde Shelton and his reign of terror go far beyond the usual level of artifice and dumbness. Yet even if the basic story, which comes courtesy of Street Kings and Ultraviolet scribe Kurt Wimmer, weren’t so stupid, the details too feel all wrong, from our glimpses of Nick’s cardboard family life to the inner chambers of play-cynical Philadelphia lawmakers. The film’s only reason for existing is to try and keep you from guessing what moronic plot twist it’ll unleash next, until you finally realize that this thriller is really a horror movie, torture porn of sorts. It wants to be tough, I guess, but it’s really just crude, very, very silly, and more than a little sick.

Butler is on some kind of a roll. Here’s a sampling: Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life, RocknRolla, The Ugly Truth. Dude’s been in some of the worst shit I’ve had to sit through over the last few years. I’m inclined to indulge a guy trying to move up in the system a little, but to what end? Does his producer’s credit mean to imply that Law Abiding Citizen is his fucking dream project? Does he secretly fantasize being confined to a prison from which he can slaughter his own career by remote control?

One last stray observation. There's an important early sequence where Darby's condemned accomplice gets executed by the state. As the sequence builds to its climax we keep cutting back and forth between the execution and a musical recital where Jamie Foxx's daughter plays the cello. Followers of this blog wonder with me: were the makers of Law Abiding Citizen studying The Walking Dead, or what?


Paul Matwychuk said...

Dude, I am right there with you in your hatred of Gerard Butler. You forgot to mention the utterly loathsome Gamer in your parade of Butler misdeeds — I'm assuming you were smart enough to give it a miss during its brief stay in theatres earlier this year. Sadly, I wasn't, as you can see from my Gamer review, in which I share your despair at Butler's horrible choice in projects:

JB said...

Ha! I hadn't seen GAMER and hadn't read that piece of yours, but I really like how you put that whole question of career choices right up front. I think you've seen more Butler movies than I have, actually. I would have listed more of them in my piece but thought it prudent and less presumptuous to cite only the ones I personally had to sit through... and I have this vague memory of 300, which I never saw, having its defenders?

You really have to wonder how projects like LAW ABIDING CITIZEN--should we just call it LAC for short?--attract the talent they do. I mean Butler aside, what the hell is up with Jamie Foxx? Is this what you get after Oscar nods? Did he read the thing? Is it entirely politics? Do these guys not have any good friends who can take them aside and give them some tough love?

There's a great essay somewhere in this if a person had access to some insider knowledge. Nic Cage would make an excellent case study, a huge star who makes some unspeakably bad movies but will suddenly appear in something really good now and then. But Butler is somehow more akin to Jason Statham, who I know you like and I'm fairly forgiving of, too, but still...