We know that Clyde Shelton (Gerard Butler) loves his daughter because in the opening moments of "Law Abiding Citizen," we see him happily making bead necklaces with her. Then there's a knock on the door, a baseball bat to the head and Clyde watches helplessly as his wife and little girl are raped and murdered during a home invasion.
Clyde, understandably, wants justice, and when he doesn't get it from the system, he wants revenge on everyone involved. Because of that "Law Abiding Citizen" spends a lot of time paying lip service to the inequities of a broken judicial system where "some justice is better than no justice at all."
But it's all a lot of empty talk with the filmmakers figuring if they bandy about the word "justice" enough, it will give the illusion of conscience to a movie that is merely a revenge-genre retread. The moral posturing becomes laughably self-conscious, like a politician endlessly repeating buzzwords like "change" or "maverick," ultimately laying bare the complete absence of substance to the movie's conflicted message.
The film's greatest sin isn't its cynical moral posturing but its complete failure to engage audiences on even a visceral level. Screenwriter Kurt Wimmer ("Sphere") has the characters deliver speeches while setting up Clyde's gruesome revenge fantasies, and then director F. Gary Gray drains every bit of tension from those sequences. This cycle is repeated with events becoming more ludicrous until the movie's nutty, logic-be-damned finale.
As we learn more about Clyde, it becomes apparent that he probably wants revenge not because those closest to him died, but because a couple of low-rent hoodlums got the best of him, wounding his pride. The man is a kissing cousin to Hannibal Lecter, a cool, collected psychopath incapable, you could argue, of human feeling.
Wimmer's paint-by-numbers screenplay leaves this idea utterly unexplored. When career-minded Philadelphia prosecutor Nick Rice (a bored Jamie Foxx) decides to cut a deal with one of the murderers in order to get at least one conviction, Clyde is bewildered. When he sees Rice shaking hands with the greasy, deal-making perp (Christian Stolte) on the courthouse steps, he's outraged. "It's nice when the system works, right?" he tells Rice, his voice seething with sarcasm and contempt.
Flash forward 10 years and apparently Clyde has spent the intervening decade studying law and watching (maybe script doctoring?) the "Saw" movies. Clyde is ready to rain down hell on anyone connected with the case, and the man has the brains and bank account to make good on his threats, even when he lands in prison for his efforts.
To its credit, the movie doesn't go out of its way to stoke the audience's blood lust. But because it offers little in terms of value or interest, it quickly becomes an exercise in tedium. Say what you will about "Death Wish," but Charles Bronson was never boring (until, maybe, the third movie in the series).
When Rice puts on his sleuthing cap to investigate just how Clyde can wreak mayhem from his prison cell, the movie spins off in a direction that makes "Hogan's Heroes" look like a documentary. Of course, if these guys were remaking that series, they'd have Hogan slice Col. Klink's eyelid off with his monocle -- while mentioning the word "justice" at least three times during the procedure.
'Law Abiding Citizen'
MPAA rating: R for strong bloody brutal violence and torture, a scene of rape, and pervasive language
Running time: 1 hour and 42 minutes
Playing: In wide release