Law Abiding Citizen is a glib, brutal and preposterous revenge fantasy, a take-the-law-into-your-own-hands rabble-rouser that taps into a lot of fears and genuine gripes about the American legal system.
It's the sort of movie that Mel Gibson or Clint Eastwood might have made back in the day: A man survives the slaughter of his family by thugs and sets out to get even, and then some.
Gerard Butler has the title role, Clyde Shelton, a "tinkerer" who is stabbed during a home invasion. Jamie Foxx is Nick Rice, the politically ambitious Philadelphia prosecutor who lets one of the killers get off easy so the other will be executed.
"It's not what you know, it's what you can prove in court," Nick tells a distraught Clyde.
Nick is listening to his boss (Bruce McGill). "In this job, your best asset is a short memory." But that's not Clyde. Ten years later, when one of the killers is finally executed, his elaborate revenge begins.
Law Abiding Citizen is a "you don't know who you're messing with" thriller, like Taken. Clyde might be a law-abiding citizen, but he has gadget skills and a sadistic streak. When he kills crooks and the legal eagles who kept them from justice, he makes them suffer. Almost all of them have terrifying seconds to realize their fate.
Nick knows who is doing this and even locks up Clyde. But because he's the ultimate quarry in this blood feud, Nick must see those around him die at Clyde's gadget-guru hands.
Butler gives Clyde a wicked glee at what he is doing, but only a hint of the humanity he lost when his wife and daughter were slain. His battle-of-brains-and-wills scenes with Foxx don't have a lot of snap, and because those confrontations are the heart here, that drains some energy off the film.
A rich canvas of character actors (Colm Meaney, Viola Davis) are mostly plot necessities. The script by Kurt Wimmer (The Recruit) has a cruel wit, until it falls apart in a dishonest and outlandish third act. Director F. Gary Gray (The Italian Job) maintains his rep for action scenes that deflate on screen.
One would hope that filmmakers, outside of the horror genre anyway, don't start from a place of utter cynicism. But we know exactly what we're dealing with in Law Abiding Citizen. It's a "who dies next?" slasher film masquerading as a revenge thriller.