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MOVIE REVIEW

Law Abiding Citizen

In ‘Law Abiding Citizen,’ revenge never seemed so bland

Jamie Foxx and Gerard Butler star in the revenge thriller “Law Abiding Citizen.’’ Jamie Foxx and Gerard Butler star in the revenge thriller “Law Abiding Citizen.’’ (John Baer/Overture Films via Ap)
By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / October 16, 2009

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You don’t want to snicker when two rows of parked cars suddenly blow up in “Law Abiding Citizen.’’ But that’s the only response to such desperate moviemaking. There’s no earthly reason for that explosion. Nor is there an explanation for lines like, “I do my job. I’m the best at it. It works.’’ That’s Jamie Foxx to Gerard Butler, but it may as well be Tom Cruise in anything.

Foxx plays Nick Rice, a rising star in the Philadelphia district attorney’s office, and for the first time in Foxx’s career, he appears to be performing his role from the bank where he cashed his check. He’s seen this movie before, and so have we. Ten years ago, Nick arranged a plea bargain for testimony against a man who killed the wife and daughter of Clyde Shelton (Butler), an engineer who still can’t believe that justice was only half served. In the decade that’s passed, Clyde has been exacting revenge against just about anyone involved in the murders and the trial.

You would think a movie about the lawyer’s attempt to stop the maniac would be a welcome change of pace from watching the cops try. How untrue. The movie appears to have been written by an automated thriller generator (enter city, enter occupations, enter films whose box office you’d like to emulate). So it hardly matters who’s stopping Butler. (Kurt Wimmer gets credit for the script.) The plot and its twists remain the same. So does the dialogue. “Lessons learned are soon forgotten.’’ “That’s how winners play.’’ “I’m gonna bring this whole diseased temple down on your head. It’s gonna be biblical!’’ Most of the lines sound as if they were first spoken on “CSI,’’ “NCIS,’’ or the WWE.

The central mystery in “Law Abiding Citizen’’ revolves around how Butler manages to kill judges and lawyers when he’s supposed to be serving time in a maximum-security prison. Which means the movie also revolves around a mound of human stupidity. Really? There’s no cop or security officer to stop that giant grenade-launching robot before it opens fire on a funeral procession? Viola Davis addresses some of this when she makes a late appearance as the mayor, but the onus to straighten this out is actually on us.

How are we to believe, for instance, that Butler can bring a city to its knees with his intellect?

Much of his role requires him to banter with Foxx, cutting deals with the DA’s office to save the lives Clyde has left in jeopardy. He requests a steak dinner and “all the trimmings.’’ He’d like an iPod. If not, somebody dies. Clyde shanks his cellmate to death then placidly hops onto his bunk covered in blood. This is hackneyed serial-killer stuff, from Hannibal Lecter down to the murderers of “Se7en’’ and “Saw.’’

And if there’s a prayer of bringing this character off, you need an actor capable not simply of danger but of the evil required to, say, send a DVD of a live dismemberment to a 10-year-old girl (oh, Clyde). You need an actor who can conjure nastiness with panache and pedantry. He has to want the steak and the nice Chianti to wash it down. Butler looks like a Guinness man.

In romantic comedies, Butler contributes a welcome dose of swagger at a time when machismo is in distressingly short supply. This is to say, he needs the challenge of the opposite sex. Otherwise, he seems shut down, especially here. It’s hard to blame him. Since the movie has no interest in taking seriously the grief and rage that fuels revenge, he has nothing emotional to play.

Most of the side actors - Colm Meaney, Regina Hall, Michael Kelly - are underused. And Butler and Foxx deserve to mix it up in a movie with a lot more going for it. This one doesn’t even have the heart to be a decent work of trash. Which is not to say it’s not tasteless.

In combining all those procedural shows with “Saw’’ and “The Silence of the Lambs,’’ the director F. Gary Gray (“The Italian Job’’) gets to play with all kinds of weaponry (rockets, automatic machine guns, improvised explosive devices). Helicopters swoop urgently past the camera. Like a lot of action-movie directors, Gray lacks the imagination to view the art of cat-and-mouse as more than a chance to play with state-of-the-art war technology. It used to be all you needed was a scowl and a .44 Magnum. This movie uses an arsenal that turns Philadelphia into Afghanistan.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com. For more on movies, go to www.boston.com/movienation.

LAW ABIDING CITIZEN

Directed by: F. Gary Gray

Written by: Kurt Wimmer

Starring: Jamie Foxx and Gerard Butler

At: Boston Common, Fenway, Harvard Square, Somerville Theatre, and suburbs

Running time: 108 minutes

Rated: R (strong bloody brutal violence and torture, a scene of rape, and pervasive language)

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