It goes without saying that the Saw movies are preposterous. Audiences readily accept—as they should—the silly idea of a devious puppetmaster working behind the scenes to lead victims to various forms of mechanized slaughter. There are plenty of adjectives to describe the franchise (“venal,” “sick,” “repetitive,” “ugly”), but the premise itself, outrageous though it may be, falls well within the boundaries for gross-out horrors. The same cannot be said of Law Abiding Citizen, a flagrantly ridiculous thriller that tries to retrofit Saw to function as a mainstream, semi-respectable vigilante picture about the failings of our justice system. It’s one thing to expect audiences to squirm over, say, a horror victim forced to dig a key of his eye socket, but it’s another to expect them to leave the theater scratching their chins over prosecutorial misconduct.
The icky opening scene finds Gerard Butler, a middle-class tech wizard, unsuccessfully attempting to fend off two intruders who murder his wife and daughter. Lacking the hard evidence to bring the case to trial, assistant district attorney Jamie Foxx accepts a plea bargain that lets the chief perpetrator take a lesser sentence in exchange for testimony that sends his partner to death row. Pleased enough with bolstering his conviction rate, Foxx reasons that “some justice is better than no justice.” But needless to say, Butler isn’t satisfied with the deal. Ten years later, Butler uses his technical know-how to go vigilante, but he isn’t just after the killer—he wants to take down the whole damned system.
The means through which Butler goes about terrorizing judges, prosecutors, and government officials are unseemly enough, but more disturbing still is that Law Abiding Citizen appears to be in his corner. Of the two, Foxx is the flawed man taking the moral journey here, forced to realize that his thoughtless, self-serving tactics as assistant D.A. are doing a disservice to people who want justice for their slain family members. And who better to set him straight than a raging sociopath? It’s an outrageous concept that the film takes seriously. Coming soon: a Silence Of The Lambs sequel featuring Hannibal Lecter as a life coach.