Welcome to worst of the worst, because good films get all the attention (article format here).
When you see a good film, you remember it. When you see a bad film, it sticks with you in a different way – sticks to you in fact and is hard to get off. Consider this a kind of therapy of catharsis. Law Abiding Citizen is pretty much the worst film I have ever seen and to make it worse, I had the displeasure of seeing it in it’s full projected glory (a limited English-language choice whilst travelling in continental Europe). Should I have walked out? I sure wanted to but it’s to the benefit of this article that I didn’t. Don’t come to me with you, “It’s just a dumb action film” arguments (looking at you, Ebert) but that’s sloppy thinking. Fun action movies can be exhilarating (Die Hard), visually adventurous (District 9, Iron Sky), emotionally commanding (Blood Diamond) and thought provoking (take your pick of the Nolan back catalogue). And like any other art form, they can also be horrendous.
Clyde Shelton (GER-ARD BUT-LER!) is the eponymous law abiding citizen whose wife and child are killed in front of him. When the prosecutor allows one of the killers to plead guilty to a lesser charge in order to ensure the full conviction on the other, Shelton goes full-Punisher deciding that not only will he hunt down and kill the two killers, he will take out his revenge on the prosecutor and everyone around him for not enforcing the full power of the law. Confessing to the killing of the released killer, he is sent to jail….but in a twist the revenge killings continue and several people in the prosecutors’ office are killed. In an investigative coup, Prosecutor Rice (Jamie Foxx) discovers that Shelton isn’t an ordinary law abiding citizen at all but a CIA assassin and that he has no accomplices but has been tunnelling out of the jail at night to keep killing. In a final confrontation, Rice agrees that he should never have made the original plea bargain and then kills Shelton with his own bomb. Fin.
What it should have been
It should have been a revenge thriller with a true emotional honesty at the core where the viewer’s loyalties stay with the avenger (or flit between the avenger and the authorities) right until the end where he finally goes too far and becomes a monster himself. The authorities try to stop him and in a moment of realisation, he surrenders or dies. Even with this downbeat ending, the criminals are still dead, the city seems safer and the question of whether the vigilante actually did more good than harm is a tempting one.
It should have been Man on Fire meets Taxi Driver meets Falling Down. It should have been great.
The entire discussion of plea bargains are a rich seam of grey area which if expertly mined could be an interesting and memorable hook.
What it actually was
Insulting to the viewer, the plot makes all kinds of no-sense and is clearly plotted by somebody who doesn’t understand how revenge thrillers work. The ending is a damp squib with an unconvincing forced resolution. The violence is copious but unearned – just as irrelevant as mario jumping on a goomba, except with ridiculous gore.
What went wrong
Here’s a few criticisms:
- I mentioned that if you want the viewer to empathise with your avenger, you need to give them a kind of raw emotional core which is understandable, even as they transgress morally. I mentioned Man on Fire as a pretty much perfect example of this. Washington’s Creasy does some terrible things but the stakes and his emotional attachment to the kidnapped and betrayed child give us an understanding and empathy with him even as he does these things. I talked about The Last of Us previously which does a similar kind of thing and actually goes even further in making it clear that the violent excesses of the avenging character are drawn up from a thoroughly negative place but only because the avenger is pushed to his limits and at that time can be no-one else. Law Abiding Citizen doesn’t give us this. Shelton has his revenge against one of the killers who is sentenced to be lethally injected, but Shelton intervenes and makes sure he dies painfully. He then murders the other killer. So far so good. Traditionally, this would be the end of the story or the vigilante would go after other killers but in this story the killer then decides to kill the prosecutor……which doesn’t really make any sense or really even count as vengeance any more……but possibly we can go with it. But then he decides to punish the prosecutor, he will kill members of the prosecutors staff….in other words, complete bystanders (he kills other bystanders too with even less connection to the case). Very quickly it becomes clear that there isn’t any emotional honestly in Shelton’s revenge. He is just a killer on a killing spree…and we’re still only half way through the film. Not only do we not believe in this character any more but all the potential for empathising with him or expecting some kind of redemption goes out of the window. All the emotional tension is dead, all the plot complexity is dead and the moral picture has turned from shades of grey to black and white. Even worse…..
- The film lies to us. The god-damn title of the film is “Law Abiding Citizen” but Shelton isn’t law abiding or an ordinary citizen at all. He’s a trained CIA assassin working above the law – a one man army. When your job is to kill people for money without any kind of trial, how can he hold the prosecutor and the US justice system at large to such high standards? Shelton was never a relatable or sympathetic character, he was always a murderer and merely continued to be a murderer. The mid-film reveal of this fact destroys the idea of a plot arc for Shelton. It’s one thing to have revelations about the main character change your view of him in a masterful way (The Prestige, Memento) but the thing is that this revelation has to shed light on the character, not wipe out the most basic assumptions up to this point. The film works against the viewer, masquerading as an intelligent film operating in a complex way to a black and white hunter vs. hunted scenario (Shelton is basically the Predator).
- The basic macguffin of the film is insulting to the intelligence of toddlers who are used to more complex fare like Peppa Pig or Yo Gabba Gabba. The idea that Shelton intentionally gets himself arrested, then murders his cell mate in order to intentionally be put into solitary confinement. He has already prepared a secret tunnel into the solitary confinement cell from his secret base outside the prison walls. There he can sally out at night and murder to his heart’s content. The viewer has no idea of any of this, only that whilst Shelton is in jail, the murders continue. The film toys with the idea that he has an accomplice (which is a pretty interesting idea) but reveals the true methodology near the end of the film – GROAN. Here are a few objections to this thicker-than-thick dumbass plot (A) If they moved him to a different solitary confinement cell, his plan doesn’t work (B) If they posted guards to watch him at night or used a security camera his plan would not have worked (C) If they just searched his cell thoroughly enough to find the tunnel, his plan doesn’t work (D) He commits the murders in person, so if they follow him back to the other end of the tunnel his plan doesn’t work (E) If they can’t trail him, why go into jail in the first place (F) Why not didn’t he have an accomplice anyway, maybe a fellow hired assassin (E) Why doesn’t he have a fall back plan for them inevitably discovering his tunnel.
- Shelton’s methods of killing people are dumber than sharks with laser beams on their heads. In his back story, he kills somebody with (in the words of wikipedia), “a necktie that kept getting tighter when it was tied, thus strangling the victim”. We are strictly in Roger Moore bond-era territory. In another scene he attacks a funeral with a massive bomb-disposal type robot with two machine guns strapped to the top, which mows down mourners and gravestones alike before making a getaway. Weirdly, the police aren’t able to tail or trace the completely huge fucking unique robot of which there is probably only one in the whole god-damn continental United States! In another scene, he blows up a million cars. No, not just a clever execution but blows up every damn car in the parking lot. His capabilities are so unrestrained there must be theoretical hours of theoretical cut scenes showing him painstakingly and personally laying bombs for hours upon hours. This is supposed to be a hard-hitting gritty film but the writer’s idea of that is so off the rails, it would seem slightly too flashy, unrealistic and over the top even in a MacGuyver episode. So it’s flashy and cheesy? No, it’s full of blood and gore. Charming!
- The ending is dumb. Apparently Shelton didn’t kill Rice because he wanted Rice to realise that “he shouldn’t make deals with murderers” by becoming a murderer and murdering people close to Rice and then seeing if Rice makes a deal with him. What THE FUCKING FUCK? It’s the dumbest forced resolution in decades. If you want to smoke, little Jimmy, I’ll make you smoke until you get cancer and die – then will you smoke? Teaching people a lesson doesn’t really work if to do so you have to renege on everything you believe in. If you want revenge on the prosecutor for going easy on killers, you probably think killers aren’t such a good thing that you would so easily become one to teach him a lesson. There are so many levels of dumb, I feel like I might get trapped in them.
Notes for the inevitable remake
Or perhaps sequel?
The main problem is that the film sets us up to sympathise with Shelton but takes that away when we learn pretty much before the half way mark that (1) he is a CIA killer and (2) he’s just going to murder everyone for no real reason.
Remove these two problems straight off. Go back to the original premise. Shelton is an ordinary guy – ex-military perhaps, but not a killer. He needs to be an ordinary man – a pillar of the community even. If he is so distressed by the failure of US justice that he takes action, he needs first to completely believe in it. He needs to be a patriot and a true believer in the whole national shebang. We need more scenes establishing just what a community minded man he is.
And Gerard Butler can’t play him. Butler is a muscular bully with no range. The whole point is that we sympathise with Shelton, a sympathy that ebbs away over the course of the film until we realise he is a monster (again, Taxi Driver, or Knockout Ned from City of God). This kind of sympathy is impossible with Butler, who essentially rose to fame playing a brutal fascist Greek version of Conan the Barbarian. His body builder physique is wrong too. Shelton needs to be an everyman.
Without changing the cast, Foxx and Butler need to switch roles. Foxx showed us in Collateral that he is brilliant at playing the full range of an everyman character – from pushover to hero. Butler’s sneery bullyishness would actually work well as the face of a prosecutor we are encouraged to hate at the beginning of the film, only to later give Butler a chance to show his chops as the figure becomes more sympathetic later on.
In terms of the plot, Shelton can’t kill the murderers straight away. They’re the only people he truly wants revenge on. Once they are both dead, the tension is gone and our sympathy for Shelton can’t sustain. Let’s increase the number of murderers to three. One of them gets a life sentence and the other two are released. Shelton gets revenge on two of them, killing both (one in prison, one who has been released). None of them get the death penalty because the plot device of swapping out a lethal injection for a more painful lethal injection is toothless. Dead is dead. Lethal injection is lethal injection. Let’s not pretend that the normal lethal injection is painless or “letting them get off easy”. The third killer goes on the run, prolonging the initial sympathy for Shelton’s revenge further through the movie.
Next we have the killing of everyone in the Prosecutor’s office (assistants, secretaries, the whole shebang). If this happens, it has to happen late in the film and the message can’t be, “I killed these people to teach you a lesson”. That’s too stupid and cartoony. We need an extra reason for the protagonist to get this far and there could be an extra factor. Perhaps some of the people in the office are trying to extend an additional bargain to the murderer on the run to offer him relocation and protection. Shelton knows that once the killer is relocated, he will never be able to get revenge and so turns even on the prosecutors’ office perhaps at first just placing them in danger (a fire in their offices) and only later graduating to trying to kill them directly.
The idea of being intentionally imprisoned and then using a tunnel to escape is insulting to the intelligence. The whole thing has to go. In place, I realise a similar but more functional twist is needed. Maybe after the first time he is imprisoned, he is visited by the prosecutor and detectives. After this he makes sure he is transferred to another prison or wing (maybe he kills his cell mate as in the film, but honestly, there would ideally be a better motive behind this). After this despite the fact that the prosecutor believes he is in jail and has seen him, the revenge actions continue. Perhaps the twist is that Shelton has got somebody to switch with him or fake the records (assisted by another victim of the killers perhaps). Only upon the second visit to jail does the prosecutor see that the man in jail is not Shelton. The guards didn’t realise because of the transfer. Shelton is in fact free and on the run. Such a trick would only be used once. The idea of using the trick, especially the tunnel, over and over again without being caught is silly.
One final suggestion for the end of the film. No stupid robots. No stupid explosions. Shelton is talked down by the prosecutor (after killing the last killer) and apprehended, going to jail. There we have an uncertain ending. Shelton is punished for what he did, but not killed. He reflects that he went too far in killing innocents but doesn’t regret his actions as a vigilante in hunting down the original killers. The prosecutor is moved but unsure of whether he can really stop plea bargains from being issued – maybe he is even replaced. Shelton is penitent but counts down the days of his sentence when he will once again be free to be a law abiding citizen. The idea is an uncertain and ambiguous ending, something which reflects on the difficult nature of handling justice. Something like the ending of The Machinist or 25th Hour and definitely not a forced resolution or a bond-style face-off.
Let’s face it, this is such a bad movie, it’s hard not to improve it by doing pretty much anything.
So, how did I do? Let me know or suggest more candidates for Worst of the Worst.