It seems that in the last couple years, Gerard Butler has been signing on to just about every movie that comes his way, regardless of genre, good fit, script quality, or a coherent story. How else can you explain his minor but useful role in Rocknrolla, the awful Ugly Truth, the pointless Gamer, and now, the almost-saves-him-from-being-Thomas-Jane thriller "Law Abiding Citizen." I think his agent is terrified that 300 was his peak, so he keeps making sure he works regardless of the outcome.
Butler plays Clyde Shelton, who survives a home invasion though his wife and daughter do not, and is astonished (maybe he doesn't live in America?) to find that the two men responsible will not garroted in the town square for their crimes. No, one of the men goes to death row because of the testimony of his accomplice - who gets 3 years and did most of the violence anyway. Jamie Foxx plays the Assistant District Attorney who prosecutes that case, and is the one to break the news to Shelton that sometimes, the justice system isn't perfect. Now, obviously this is a work of fiction, because we all know that in reality, justice prevails 100% of the time, and nobody is ever left wanting. In the movie world, though, this is simply unacceptable.
Shelton waits 10 years (!) to enact his revenge, first sabotaging the execution of Bad Guy #1 and then grotesquely murdering and dismembering Bad Guy #2. He is arrested for these acts, and the movie ends. Just kidding. That would have made too much sense. No, now that he's safely in jail, he begins a murderous spree targeting, literally, anyone who had a hand in the original trial, whether it be the presiding judge or random attorneys from the D.A.'s office who did research. Foxx's character, Nick Rice, has to work with the police to try and stop the killings, all the while knowing that he is Shelton's primary target.
I liked this movie...for a while. There is a missed opportunity early to really flesh out Foxx's character and give him a moral ambiguity, but it's dismissed in favor of some pretty straightforward black and white justice-dishing. I was intrigued to see what Shelton could do from prison, and while some of the events stretched believability, I rolled with it. However, as the details of his plan come to light, the movie breaks with suspension of disbelief and rolls straight into "you are freaking kidding me" territory. I would preferred not to have ever found out his methods than to see what the screenwriter came up with.
Shelton's character is a little confusing. He begins the movie as loving husband and father, becomes stricken and incredulous, then apparently, during the decade we don't see, morphs into a complete psychopath. You see, after he has killed the men responsible for murdering his family, he takes it upon himself to bring the entire system down because he sees it as unfixable; that he is able to accomplish what he does is all the more remarkable considering how open he is about his intentions.
As a cat and mouse thriller/mystery, it works on a surface level. There is a good dynamic between Butler and Foxx's characters, and Butler is fairly convincing as a guy that could mastermind such a scheme, even though the only reason we have to believe he could do it in the first place is a brief scene with one of his former colleagues. He certainly doesn't come across in the opening as much of a crazy special ops guy, but looks can be deceiving.
One thing that got to me was that nobody seemed to be all that scared of what he was doing, outside of talking about it. The Mayor seemed more concerned with a press reaction than, you know, not dying. Someone who could kill people while in jail would probably scare the hell out of me, but that's not really conveyed here. There is a very Alpha Male response, in that Foxx's attorney apparently figures he can solve the case on his own and wants to avoid taking a publicity hit himself. He's probably going to die, but his career remains an important consideration. Odd.
It's the best work Butler has done since donning a cape, but still doesn't match that intensity. Maybe he did peak.