There's a lot of scary stuff going on in Law Abiding Citizen, the Philadelphia-made criminal-justice revenge thriller starring Gerard Butler and Jamie Foxx, but the scariest thing of all might be an idea that comes from the mayor's office.
A jailed psychopath is orchestrating the murders of city officials, a judge, and members of the district attorney's office. Cars and cell phones are blowing up, the public is in a panic. And so, the understandably ill-tempered mayor (a sharp-suited Viola Davis) convenes an emergency meeting of the police, the sheriff's department, the FBI, even Homeland Security. She's demanding action.
"If you have to give shotguns to the meter maids," she snaps, "do it!"
Uh-oh, run for your lives.
An over-the-top and grisly howdunit, Law Abiding Citizen - opening Philadelphia Film Festival 181/2 tonight, and playing everywhere starting tomorrow - fuses Death Wish vigilante vengeance with the mad-genius-behind-bars puppet-mastery of Hannibal Lecter. That the film, directed in swift strokes by F. Gary Gray from a screenplay credited to Kurt Wimmer, doesn't really work - unrelentingly grim, unintentionally funny - is almost beside the point. It's a wild concept.
Scotsman Butler, big, brooding and approximating some kind of Philly-speak, is Clyde Shelton. By all appearances, he's a regular Joe: He makes gizmos while his little girl strings beads and his wife cooks dinner in the kitchen. But that's the prologue: A few minutes later, two thugs rap at the door, a home invasion nightmare ensues, and Clyde's family is destroyed.
The perps are arrested, but the case isn't a lock, and so ace assistant D.A. Nick Rice (Foxx) makes a deal with one of the murderers to rat out the other. Lethal injection for one, but just a few years in the pen for the other - and he's the real creep.
"Some justice is better than no justice at all," Nick tries to explain. But Clyde, stunned and disbelieving, is having none of it. Instead, he'll have revenge - a dish best served cold. (Later on, he'll order a porterhouse from Del Frisco's - one of several dubious product placements.)
Strangely, Law Abiding Citizen really has no hero. Butler's an odd sort of antihero, his character cheated by "this broken thing" of a justice system, and at first he has our sympathy. But by the time Clyde straps one of his victims to a table - looming crazily over him with scalpel and box cutters, revving up the power saw - it's hard to root for the guy.
As for Foxx's Nick, he's just too icy a character to care about - he won't even take the time to watch his little girl play cello at the school recital. Foxx does the aloof, all-business thing convincingly enough. But not so much the moments when his character lets his emotions in (or out). It's a remote, uncharismatic performance.
Philadelphians will get a kick out of seeing Butler, Foxx, Leslie Bibb (another assistant D.A.) and Colm Meany (an unshaven cop) navigating the Escher-like stairwells of City Hall. There are vertiginous aerial shots of the skyline, a close-up of Billy Penn's mug, and even a deadpan cameo from the city's current, real mayor, Mr. Nutter.
But Law Abiding Citizen isn't one of those wow-don't- we-live-in-a-handsome-town! affairs. Like the name of its director, the movie - and the mood of the city in it - is all gray.