Back in 2000, Steve Martin was talking about the hack writer's trick of getting sympathy for one character by making another one a total rotter. "I think that's the cheap and ugly way out," he said. "What I hate in movies I mean action movies is, 'We need the audience to really hate the bad guy. So let's have him kill two 6-year-olds.' "
Martin was thinking too small. The current recipe, cooked up in last year's Death Race and this week's Law Abiding Citizen, is to have some malefactor slaughter the leading character's wife and child the love of his life and his hope for the future as he watches helplessly. After that, any transgression, including wholesale murder, is understandable. In real life, good men may try to gulp down the black bile of their devastation and move on. They would answer Bernard Shaw's question to the 1988 Democratic candidate for President "Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?" in Michael Dukakis' measured tone, putting principle above vengeance. But that heroic restraint wouldn't make for a good movie. Then again, neither does the drearily sadistic Law Abiding Citizen.
Clyde Shelton (Gerard Butler) is the mild, happily married Philadelphian who's forced to watch his family's atrocity up close. The two killers are arrested, but assistant DA Nick Rice (Jamie Foxx), who's wary of trying a case he might lose, cuts a deal, letting one perp testify against the other. One is condemned to death; the other gets a light sentence. Outraged and embittered, Shelton lies low for 10 years, then activates a revenge scheme that is both madly complex and simply mad. He executes the killers in approved mad-scientist fashion one by remote control in prison, the other by surgically removing precious body parts and injecting him with "poison from the liver of a Caribbean puffer fish" and, when the police arrive, strips naked to greet them, as if he were Leonidas facing the Persians at Thermopylae. Shelton is put in prison, and that's where the murder games begin in earnest.
Apparently Shelton and director F. Gary Gray (Friday, The Italian Job) spent the last decade studying movies like Death Wish, the Saw series, The Brave One, Untraceable and other examples of revenge gorenography. The genre was launched with the 1962 Cape Fear (and its John D. MacDonald source novel), whose killer not only tracks down the lawyer who prosecuted him but terrorizes the man's wife and child. The movie's sobering climax the lawyer refuses to kill the killer, because he will not be reduced, even in extremis, to his animal impulses was rectified in the 1991 Martin Scorsese remake, where wily psychopath Robert De Niro dies several times. The same year, The Silence of the Lambs brought the genre its essential wrinkle of the evil genius, beating the criminal-justice system even as he bites its face off.
Law Abiding Citizen is yet another Hannibal lecture: a tutorial in civics porn. Screenwriter Kurt Wimmer posits that the law is so weak and corrupt an arbiter of guilt that punishment can't be entrusted to it, or even to private contractors. (Care to make a little money on the side, Blackwater?) No, revenge is a dish best wolfed down right now, because this time it's personal. And for Shelton, the body count of retribution is "gonna be biblical" as in the Egyptian children killed by God's decree. By midspree, and from the seemingly airtight confinement of his prison cell, Shelton has effected the violent dispatch of most of the people who had even a peripheral role in his killers' judicial fate. And since Rice has a loving wife and a child about the same age as Shelton's when she died, the viewer fully expects them to be Shelton's next target. (SPOILER ALERT: They're not.)
The plot has holes deeper than the ones ... no, we can't say, since that would tip the movie's one surprise. We'll just say that while Shelton is terrorizing Philadelphia by masterminding his crimes from his solitary cell, the prison officials might have thought to post a 24-hour guard nearby. Still, caulking those holes wouldn't help its stars bring emotional plausibility to their roles. Foxx seems both fretful and distracted; he can be a vital screen presence, but his characters need to act, not just react and endure. Butler has the showier part, but his impersonation of the tragic hero is undercut by his weird resemblance to Soupy Sales. You start hoping that Shelton will kill somebody with a custard (or puffer-fish) pie to the face.
No such luck. The not-very-surprising ending of Law Abiding Citizen is that the real victims are the audience. And what revenge can they take? They probably can't even get their money back.