Revenge is a dish best served with car bombs and chainsaws in "Law Abiding Citizen," a twisty hybrid of serial-killer suspenser, legal thriller and prison drama that, in between grisly setpieces, attempts to raise significant questions about the failures of the criminal justice system. Yet far more than any tacked-on moral dilemmas, it's Gerard Butler's juicy performance as a grieving father turned mass-murdering psycho genius that powers this self-serious pulp entertainment. Overture release packs enough potent shocks to lure sizable thrill-seeking crowds to multiplexes (the owners of which are hopefully smart enough to hyphenate the title on the marquee).
Wasting no time, the pic plunges the viewer immediately into a horrific yet unprotracted domestic bloodbath. Two men break into the home of Philadelphia family man Clyde Shelton (Butler), who's forced to watch helplessly as they murder his wife and young daughter. Exactly how and why Clyde survives the senseless assault is left unexamined by Kurt Wimmer's screenplay, which quickly abandons the scene of the crime in favor of a longer stay in legal chambers, where matters of guilt and innocence aren't quite so cut-and-dried.
Unable to convict both killers due to insufficient evidence, prosecutor Nick Rice (Jamie Foxx), a careerist accustomed to compromise, arranges a deal with one of the perps, Darby (Christian Stolte), so he can send the other to death row. But that's not good enough for Clyde, who waits 10 long years for vengeance -- and well worth the wait it is, as he abducts Darby and lays him out on an operating table apparently on loan from the "Saw" prop department.
True torture-porn aficionados will be disappointed, as editor Tariq Anwar cuts away right before blade meets flesh -- a move that feels a tad, well, gutless under the circumstances. But elsewhere, "Citizen" proves startlingly graphic, even by R-rated standards; as Clyde's killing spree continues, now targeting the key players in the decade-old murder case, one starts watching every scene in nervous anticipation that heads or SUVs might explode without warning.
Even after he's apprehended and locked up, Clyde remains 10 steps ahead of everyone else, including Nick, who tries in vain to stop this homicidal mastermind. Like a younger, hunkier Hannibal Lecter, Clyde plays nasty mind games, makes ludicrous demands and is in every way determined to shake the foundations of so-called law and order.
Just as Nick is outwitted again and again by Clyde, so top-billed Foxx is overmatched here by Butler -- who, even if he can't quite make sense of an impossible character (a loving husband and father warped by unspeakable trauma into a one-man WMD), clearly relishes the challenge. Whether he's savoring a steak (delivered in exchange for info about a victim's whereabouts) or, in the pic's most galvanizing moment, telling off a judge, Butler gives the picture a pulse and keeps it throbbing steadily through the first hour, which shamelessly feeds the viewer's own appetite for revenge.
Butler makes such a charismatic villain/antihero that you never quite stop rooting for him, which is a credit to the performance but also a dramatic handicap -- one that serves to show how disposable the good guys are, even those played by such sterling character vets as Bruce McGill, Colm Meaney and Viola Davis.
Director F. Gary Gray (making a smooth return to filmmaking four years after "Be Cool") lends the pic some of the procedural flair and attention to detail that distinguished his souped-up 2003 remake of "The Italian Job." But "Citizen" is a more bloated affair, and it winds up feeling overwritten yet underexplained, foregoing plausible revelations in favor of gusty debate about the ethical challenges of practicing and upholding the law. Suspense deflates even as the body count escalates.
Using a steely color palette to emphasize its moral gray zones, the pic benefits significantly from its Philly locations, which include City Hall and Holmesburg Prison.