With a sprawling yet tightly wound Machiavellian plot at its center, this overblown game of cat and mouse between a cocksure Philadelphia DA and the grieving husband and father-turned-vengeful psychopath wronged by him offers itself up as a thinking man’s actioner. Which is ironic really because if you actually stop to think about it for even a second the entire mess starts to unravel. The latest from director F. Gary Grey this undercooked psychological tussle wraps itself in pretensions of something deeper, offering musings on the glaring imperfections and inadequacies that riddle our justice system, but plays like a big budget Law & Order episode with Bond styling crossed with The Shawshank Redemption.

In something of an odd piece of casting Gerard Butler is Clyde Shelton, doting husband and happy father. Happy for about ninety seconds until a pair of thugs crash through the door, knife him and slaughter his family. Realizing he can preserve his conviction rate against a risky jury trial, dedicated but cold DA Nick Rice (Jamie Foxx) cuts a deal; one thug to death row, the other to a holiday camp for 3-5 in exchange for testimony. Despite the physique of a Greek God Butler cuts a surprisingly convincing figure as the devastated family man whose life has just been eviscerated by a seemingly senseless act of violence. But who wants to know about that guy? Not Grey, he wants to get to the cool shit!

Flash forward ten years (yup, just the ten) and the execution date arrives. But rather than quietly slipping into the cold, black abyss with minimal fuss our condemned man’s organs explode. Then the thug that got away turns up in tiny pieces after an (offscreen) torture session the details of which would make the most hardened Saw fan vomit. Before long Nick and the police are pulling in Clyde for a quiet word, and he is only too happy to cooperate. More than a little narked that Nick put his stats ahead good justice, Clyde orchestrates a campaign of violent retribution from inside a prison cell against those who make deals with devils.

Realizing that this idea is more than a little absurd for the character we’ve so far been presented with, Grey and scripter Kurt Wimmer concoct a preposterous backstory for cover but apparently neither of them have ever heard of the concept of “show, don’t tell.” We know Clyde has spent the last ten years obsessing and planning this clockwork morality lesson because he says so. We know he’s got some mysterious property holdings connected to a shady company in Panema, because Nick says so. We know he’s a former black-ops agent tougher than Bond, Bourne, and Jason Stathem rolled into one. How? A shifty guy in a trench coat and balaclava said so.

Therein lies the problem with Law Abiding Citizen, it’s a head scratching exercise in slow-burning suspense that steadfastly refuses to allow any to actually build up. With no patience to properly develop character the film simply hurries us along to the next big set piece with supplementary character vomiting fourth convenient crutches of exposition every step of the way. It’s all pay-off with no set-up. These miraculous executions against those Clyde feels have wronged him just happen. Sure, they look cool but ultimately the effect is little more than that of watching a MacGyver episode with all the pseudo-science cut out. We’re just so far removed it’s unaffecting.

The head games are fun – Clyde agrees to reveal details of his plan in exchange for a new bed in his cell, a steak dinner, an ipod – but they ultimately go nowhere. Every character simply says what they’re going to do and why, but not one of them make us feel anything. And what is it that Grey is trying to say exactly? As close as we can make out it seems to be that our justice system if horribly flawed, but it’s the best we’ve got so best to just suck it up. Okay…

Then there is the issue of balance, a key element for any psychological thriller. The lopsided nature of the plot ensures that this can never achieve the kind of titanic sense of struggle between two principled warriors its clearly shooting for. Nick is simply so outmatched and outmaneuvered at every turn the only way Jamie Foxx can keep pace is to resort to snarky quips and thinly veiled contempt, which only serve to make his already neglectful husband and father all them more unlikable and hard to root for. While neither Foxx nor Butler give anything close to a bad performance they simply fail to generate even a hint of chemistry, and good meaty dialogue the likes of Clyde informing Nick “I’m gonna brings this whole fucking diseased, corrupt, tower down on your head. It’s gonna be Biblical!” just goes to waste. In the end, its just so hard to care.

Starring: Gerard Butler, Jamie Foxx, Colm Meaney, Bruce McGill, Regina Hall, Emerald-Angel Young, Leslie Bibb

Director: F. Gary Grey

Runtime: 109 Minutes

Distributor: Overture Film

Rating: R

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