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Collateral Savage

MOVIE REVIEW
Law Abiding Citizen (2009)

M37
John Baer/Overture Films

In director F. Gary Gray’s revenge thriller “Law Abiding Citizen,” the vengeance is front and center. Acts of payback that range from robotic sniper machines to limb dissection keep the momentum in gear, the gory red stuff smeared like graffiti in surprising amounts. The plot’s crux involves a loving suburban father (Gerard Butler) who waits 10 years to wage violent retribution against the legal-system players (led by Jamie Foxx as a hotshot assistant district attorney) that let a murderer — the greasy, abhorrent deviant who killed the father’s wife and daughter — walk free. That Mr. Butler is behind bars as the plan unfolds lends an air of implausibility.

Beyond that, it’s difficult to grip any semblance of narrative fat. The cat-and-mice game orchestrated by Mr. Butler’s Clyde Shelton is so overpowering that any human elements are lost in the bloody translation. As his 2003 action triumph “The Italian Job” showed, Mr. Gray certainly knows his way around stylish anarchy, and the glossy brutality of “Law Abiding Citizen” is at times quite enthralling. Higher stakes, which could have been upped if the characters existed as more than archetypes, just aren’t in the cards.

Kurt Wimmer’s breathless script is the mainstream thriller version of Alexandre Aja’s ’05 horror favorite “High Tension” — the faults in both are disguised beneath above-and-beyond genre satiation. The Swiss cheese-like array of plot holes in Mr. Aja’s film are tough to stress when its slasher-film carnage is as fearlessly staged as it is; with “Law Abiding Citizen,” Mr. Wimmer’s minimal character development takes a backseat whenever Shelton picks off another one of his unknowing targets. Mr. Gray does keep the shock value pungent without telegraphing the hits. A particularly strong jolt based around a cell phone shows the director at his sneaky best, and a scattering of other “Saw”-caliber homicides brings “Law Abiding Citizen” to a darker place than one might expect — where, unwisely, the darkness covers the only hinted-at morality.

Coming off a string of lame-brained romantic comedies, Mr. Butler, the once tough-guy actor, has his best post-“300” role here in an underwritten scowler — which says a lot about his recent career moves. He has a formidable opponent in Mr. Foxx, a typically boisterous performer who’s subdued here, but effectively so. Mr. Foxx's restraint could very well be boredom, but he’s too naturally charismatic to drop the ball. During a heated exchange, Mr. Foxx’s tragedy-stricken lawyer asks Shelton if his war path is worth “destroying the name of your [dead] daughter.” In this moment, a compelling flip side to Mr. Butler’s kill-the-evildoers mission is introduced. But then, before you can say “Good one, Jamie,” it’s back to the body count. A larger emphasis on such moral questioning could have given the film the dramatic force its lacking. As it stands, “Law Abiding Citizen” is merely a murder fest carried out by A-listers.

LAW ABIDING CITIZEN

Opens on Oct. 16 in the United States and on Nov. 27 in Britain.

Directed by F. Gary Gray; written by Kurt Wimmer; director of photography, Jonathan Sela; edited by Tariq Anwar; production designer, Alex Hajdu; produced by Gerard Butler, Lucas Foster, Alan Siegel, Mark Gill, Mr. Wimmer and Robert Katz; released by Overture Films (United States) and Momentum Pictures (Britain). Running time: 1 hour 48 minutes. This film is rated R by M.P.A.A.

WITH: Jamie Foxx (Nick Rice), Gerard Butler (Clyde Shelton), Leslie Bibb (Sarah Lowell), Bruce McGill (Jonas Cantrell), Colm Meaney (Detective Dunnigan), Viola Davis (Mayor April Henry), Michael Irby (Detective Sean Garza), Regina Hall (Kelly Rice) and Gregory Itzin (Warden Iger).

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