If the revenge thriller seems like an especially inflexible genre, it might be because its founding formula is basically a biblical credo: an eye for an eye. In film after film, a vigilante hero is wronged and because of the failures of the legal system must take matters into his -- or, in some cases, her -- own hands. There is no real suspense over the outcome -- payback is exacted, in due course -- but the nominal pleasures of most of these movies lie precisely in their familiarity, in their brazen appeal to our most basic instincts.
The new thriller “Law Abiding Citizen,” which opened in theaters this weekend to roughly $21 million at the box office, comes on like a maniacally sped-up version of this template. The terrible violation happens in the first scene -- the family-man hero, Clyde Shelton (Gerard Butler), has barely been introduced before thugs burst through the front door of his Philadelphia home and inflict unthinkable horrors on his wife and daughter.
The next, equally familiar steps in the cycle are likewise accelerated. The justice system, as embodied by an ambitious, deal-making assistant district attorney (Jamie Foxx), is exposed right away as a sham. One of the men is sentenced to death; the other, in exchange for his testimony, gets off with a few years in jail and is soon a free man. The obligatory cat-and-mouse game that ensues is over in a flash, as the unrepentant villain walks right into the trap of the avenging hero.
“Vigilante movies are usually all about exacting revenge on the people who perpetrated the original crime,” the film’s director, F. Gary Gray, said in a recent telephone interview. “But that revenge happens very soon in our film, and so you’re always wondering what’s going to happen next.”
“Law Abiding Citizen” is not so much a subversion of the vigilante genre as a logical extension of it. Vigilante heroes are forced to operate outside an unfair or impotent system. But Clyde isn’t content to just circumvent the power structures of law and order; he sees the whole legal and judicial edifice as diseased and resolves to bring it to its knees.
The vigilante movie enjoyed its first heyday in the 1970s, with such touchstones as “Dirty Harry” (1971) and “Death Wish” (1974), which spawned sequels into the ‘80s and ‘90s, respectively. Don Siegel’s “Dirty Harry,” starring Clint Eastwood as a rogue San Francisco cop on the trail of a serial killer, was attacked by critics who saw it as a reactionary fantasy (Pauline Kael called it “fascist medievalism”), but the film, which often draws links between its nominal hero and villain, is more ambiguous than its reputation suggests.
Michael Winner’s “Death Wish” is rather more clear-cut: Charles Bronson’s hero, galvanized into action after his wife is killed and his daughter is raped by intruders, decides to wipe the scum off Manhattan’s blighted streets.
Vigilante vengeance was the cinematic theme of the decade, flourishing in the more respectable precincts of the new American cinema (Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver”) even as it fueled numerous exploitation flicks. The trend bottomed out with 1980’s “The Exterminator,” in which the title character disposes of criminal vermin by feeding them to rats or into a meat grinder.
The recent uptick in on-screen vigilantes has seemed at times like a ‘70s revival. “Walking Tall,” the 1973 hit about a club-wielding sheriff cleaning up his crime-ridden town, was remade in 2004 with Dwayne Johnson (then known as “The Rock”). “Death Sentence” (2007), with Kevin Bacon as a suburban father avenging a dead son, is based on a novel by Brian Garfield, who also wrote the book that inspired the original “Death Wish.” A “Death Wish” remake is planned for 2011 release. And in Neil Jordan’s “The Brave One” (2007), “Taxi Driver” star Jodie Foster becomes a crime-fighting folk hero in a sordid New York City as apocalyptic as the Sodom and Gomorrah that tormented Travis Bickle.
Conventional wisdom links the original law-and-order movies to the popular malaise of the Vietnam and Nixon years, and it is all too tempting to attribute the current wave to our own unpopular wars, economic woes, post 9/11 jitters, etc. But the truth of the matter is that vigilantism never really went away -- some of the genre’s crassest entries, “An Eye for an Eye” and “A Time to Kill,” date from the comparatively prosperous and peaceable 1990s -- and the thirst for revenge has always been central to American movies.
Revenge is a force that crosses genres. There are affinities between vigilantes and superheroes, not least in Christopher Nolan’s brooding Batman movies, in which vengeance is a powerful motivating force. In this year’s Nazi-scalping “Inglourious Basterds,” Quentin Tarantino, a filmmaker who has never resisted the pull of vengeance, orchestrates what you might think of as world-historical payback.
The vigilante’s sense of rough justice clearly descends from the western gunslinger’s idea of frontier law. One of the darkest explorations of revenge in American movies can be found in the 1956 John Ford classic “The Searchers,” in which the John Wayne figure’s quest to save his niece from her Comanche captors becomes a deranging obsession.
Traces of “The Searchers” are discernible in this year’s surprise box-office hit “Taken,” which stars Liam Neeson as a protective dad racking up a high body count as he attempts to retrieve his daughter from sex traffickers.
Vigilante movies are often seen as right-wing red meat, but as the controversy over “Dirty Harry” suggested years ago, the politics and the psychology of these films are not always as simple as they might seem. There is the question of where exactly viewer sympathies should lie, of whether the film endorses or denounces the actions of its protagonist, and even of whether retributive fantasies are a socially useful catharsis or an ugly symptom of a troubled society.
There is surprising room for subtlety and complexity within the unyielding template of these movies. Todd Field’s 2001 drama “In the Bedroom,” about a middle-aged couple trying to come to terms with the murder of their son, is both a patient study of grief and a kind of slow-motion vigilante movie that muffles the traditional comforts of revenge. And Clint Eastwood, as if atoning for the violent swagger of his iconic younger selves (the Man With No Name and Dirty Harry), has gone on to question the morality of vendetta heroics in such films as his 1991 masterpiece “Unforgiven” and last year’s “Gran Torino.”
Gray would prefer that “Law Abiding Citizen” be taken above all as an action movie. “It’s entertainment,” he said. “But if people are looking for more than just thrills we certainly offer that. What’s effective about films in this genre is you do wonder, ‘How far would I go? Would I go beyond normal limits to exact revenge?’ ”
The film’s idea of ambivalence is to have it both ways -- invite the audience to share the blood lust of its crazed protagonist before pulling back from the brink. Despite its overall mood of lunatic excess (Clyde’s anti-government hysteria is a little chilling in our political climate of increasingly visible and audible fringe extremists), “Law Abiding Citizen” evolves into a vaguely responsible vigilante film, careful to update the Old Testament principle in accordance with Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., and contend that an eye for an eye leaves everyone blind.
But along the way, it’s not above the pleasures of a good old-fashioned eye-gouging.