The most appealing aspect of Law Abiding Citizen is the premise: engineer Clyde Shelton [Gerard Butler] [300, Timeline, Lara Croft, Tomb Raider] witnesses the brutal slaying of his wife and child in a strikingly brutal home invasion. When the killers are set free through systemic bungling in the legal system, he spends a decade planning and executing his revenge.
Any similarity to the Death Wish franchise ends there. Instead of a brutal, rampant killing spree, our anti hero strikes with scalpel-like precision which is elaborate, elegant, shocking and cruel. It is too far, even for gore-hardened viewers of "Saw", it is an insult.
As you begin to lose all affinity for this character, you realize he has left a deliberate trail for his pursuers and actually wonder if he wants to be caught to be stopped. When he is first arrested and jailed you begin to feel for him in his anguish.
But then the real "fun", his, begins. He trickles out clues and hints while appearing to have admitted his crime, promises a full confession for a Dux bed only to leave his antagonists empty handed again and again, all the while continuing his reign of blood and death at will, from behind bars.
Butler , an accomplished and experienced character actor, excels as the "Mr. Average Joe" set into extreme circumstances. Despite his cruelty, we weep with him as his the inner torment fuels his rage. Even while outwardly groveling in humility before his supposed tormentors, his eyes burn with contempt. Again and again, they, and the viewer, are seduced by his anguish, his sense of loss and violation as he sadistically toys with them.
Director F. Gary Gray is no stranger to suspense and action [The Italian Job, The Negotiator] and meets expectations admirably. His action sequences and special effects are elegantly delivered without overkill. He easily compliments the screen play by Kurt Wimmer, [Street Kings, The Thomas Crown Affair].
But it is in the depiction of protagonist, Assistant District Attorney Nick Rice, played by Jammie Fox, that the film’s major flaw is revealed. And it is one really, really big flaw. Rice, somewhat tritely, is supposed to be a hot shot “win at all costs” prosecutor with an impeccable and imposing conviction record. Fox, though, not only fails to deliver, but never seems to even get comfortable in his own skin. He lurches from line to line as though each were a sudden realization: the way a wino comes to understand the bottle’s empty. In uttering the line “this jail is full of guys that thought they were smarter than me” the opposite is revealed as you come to realize that indeed, the six month old left over Chinese take out in your refrigerator is not only more intelligent, but evidently more talented as well.
The 'cat and mouse' toying with the law is what makes the entire premise work. Shelton escalates his activities while in captivity, killing at will, and in one scene, the gruesome slaying of his cell mate with a sirloin bone. The how of his killings is just being whetted when, without much in the way of foreplay, all is suddenly, too suddenly and very tritely revealed.
From there, Law Abiding Citizen waddles to the Hollywood smorgasbord of convenient spoon fed plot development and sates itself, selling out as only Hollywood can. As grandiose as it is, rather than satisfy, it spoils, like a promised dessert that turns out to be just more bread and water, and are left unfulfilled. The level of disappointment is only aggravated by Fox's incredibly inept performance.
It is worth the price of admission [or purchase] simply because of the excellent premise and the fine cinematic craftsmanship of at least three talented film makers, Butler, Grey and Wimmer, all three of whom have much more to offer. It would be best, though, for the film industry and viewers generally, if Jammie Fox were to change careers.