Without a scorecard, you can't tell the good guys from the bad guys in Law Abiding Citizen. Not even casting helps; a certified star like Jamie Foxx can break laws in the name of justice as easily as two slobbering goons breaking, entering, raping and murdering in the very first scene.
Should those cretins pay for their crimes? Of course, and they do but not in ways that the Supreme Court — or even a kangaroo court — would support. The surviving victim, Clyde Shelton (Gerard Butler) happens to be an inventor with a shadowy black ops history believing the judicial system failed his defiled wife and child.
Clyde is so tormented, so devoted to his lost family, that viewers can't avoid cheering when he tampers with a lethal injection execution, tortures and dismembers, rigs a cell phone to deliver a kill shot, and generally leaves a trail of bloody bystanders.
But he's such a nice guy. Certainly nicer than "Dirty Harry" Callahan and Paul "Death Wish" Kersey, whose vigilante justice Clyde probably enjoyed in their respective movies. Maim first and don't ask moral or ethical questions later. Clyde's revenge has dual disregard for law and order; he's conducting this elaborate killing spree from inside prison; a nearly perfect alibi. Hannibal Lecter would dig this guy's work.
Foxx plays Nick Rice — don't you love the terse names heroes get in movies? — the prosecutor who arranged the plea bargain Clyde violently disagrees with. Nick is tough to support in director F. Gary Gray's vision because he wants to do everything honestly. Half justice is better than none, Nick believes. Even the guy who played Ray Charles has a tough time convincing us of that.
Given Nick's stalwart demeanor and naive take on crime, it isn't surprising that Clyde grabs and throttles our attention and respect. He's the everyman shoved into horrible circumstances and reacting, as countless good guys have before although not in such bad ways. That Clyde obviously enjoys the carnage should turn off viewers. Instead, it stokes admiration, creating a vicarious fantasy of doing the same nasty things if circumstances called for them.
That said, Law Abiding Citizen is a luridly enjoyable time at the movies, chock full of nutzoid behavior and graphic violence that nobody should endure in real life. Gray knows ruthlessness is the story's trump card and plays it throughout, even abridging the plot at points when talk would slow down the action. You may wish to take a shower after seeing it, but for two hours dirty feels kind of fun.
Steve Persall can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.