Charles Bronson may have passed away but the spirit of his Death Wish films lives on -- albeit in an absurdly twisted fashion -- in F. Gary Gray’s (The Italian Job Be Cool) gleefully over-the-top revenge thriller Law Abiding Citizen.
Taking a welcome break from his recent run of lame chick flicks Gerard Butler (300 RocknRolla) stars as Clyde Shelton a loving husband and father whose placid suburban existence is upended when a couple of mangy meth monsters burst into his home. Not content to merely burglarize the place they proceed to butcher Clyde’s wife and daughter as he lies in a heap on the floor periodically losing consciousness after being stabbed several times.
The killers are soon apprehended and a grieving Clyde who somehow managed to survive the whole ordeal eagerly awaits swift retribution from the justice system. Hoping for the grim solace that only the death penalty can provide he places his faith in Nick Rice (Oscar winner Jamie Foxx) the hotshot district attorney charged with prosecuting the case to do the right thing and see to it that the two killers fry.
Nick however has other plans. Seeing the case as anything but open-and-shut and fearful that a not-guilty verdict in such a high-profile trial could derail his ambitious career plans (he sees himself as a Giuliani in the making) he opts to strike a plea deal: One man gets a death sentence while the other gets a mere 10 years in return for testifying against his cohort.
Chastened by the unseemly bargain Clyde takes matters into his own hands delivering his own uniquely painful brand of vigilante justice to the sinister men who destroyed his family. But he doesn’t stop there not by a longshot. His grudge extends much much further -- to the very heart of the justice system itself -- and he intends to bring the entire corrupt apparatus down even if he has to do it while locked up inside a jail cell. Which is where he ends up after police nab him for personally imposing the death penalty on the convicted killers.
Indeed Clyde proves to be something of a savant when it comes to killing people in creative cinematic ways employing exploding cell phones remote-control machine guns and other methods to take out the various judges attorneys and politicians on his hit list. Most amazingly he orchestrates all of this mayhem from behind bars. Seriously this guy’s flair for novelty violence makes the Joker’s antics in The Dark Knight seem amateurish by comparison.
The task of putting an end to all of Clyde’s mayhem naturally falls on Nick. And this is where Law Abiding Citizen’s fatal flaw emerges. Whereas Gray Butler and virtually everyone else seem to enthusiastically embrace the utter ridiculousness of it all Foxx plays it determinedly straight as if he’s the only one in the movie who isn’t in on the joke. Watching his performance it’s almost as if he’s making a different film than everyone else.
The right way for Law Abiding Citizen to end is for Foxx to administer an appropriately ironic death to Butler’s character utter something like “I rest my case ” and wink at the camera as he makes his exit. (Click here to read our exclusive interview with Foxx.)
I won’t give any spoilers away but suffice it to say this is NOT how the movie ends.
Max Payne started life as a popular 2001 videogame and now the dark dreary material has morphed into feature film that tries to give a back story for the tortured title character. Payne’s (Mark Wahlberg) wife and newborn baby are tragically killed and now Max a DEA agent is involved in the investigation of a series of murders that could provide a link to solving the mystery of his family’s demise. Demons in the form of a winged serpents haunt Max -- but nothing real or imagined will stand in the way of his quest. He teams with a beautiful Russian mobster and assassin Mona Sax (Mila Kunis) whose sister Natasha (Olga Kurylenko) is also killed giving equal reason to seek revenge. Complicating matters is Max’s mentor B.B. (Beau Bridges) an ex-cop who now does security for a large pharmaceutical company which may hold the key to the mystery. Forces -- both real and hidden -- are hard at work to keep Max who is clearly fighting his inner demons from reaching his goal. Wahlberg is earnest and knows how to kickass but the murders of his young wife and baby which is meant to give emotional heft to the character is really not enough to connect us to this guy. Still he does quite nicely in the numerous action scenes and is at home playing a DEA agent. Mila Kunis so appealing in Forgetting Sarah Marshall shows a saucier side here and has great potential as an action mama perhaps the kind of ball-buster Aeon Flux should have been. Olga Kurylenko who is also in the new James Bond film Quantum of Solace is well-used in the few scenes she has and Prison Break’s Amaury Nolasco is convincing as a tough ex-vet who now has drifted into the drug underworld. Beau Bridges has a tricky role he pulls off without tipping the story over while the other Bridges in the film -- rapper-turned-actor Chris “Ludicris” Bridges -- is an Internal Affairs detective who seems to sense something serious going on with Max. John Moore has been clearly influenced by the Matrix and new Batman movies creating a dark and ominous New York City with winged creatures reminiscent of the mythological Valkyrie roaming the grey skies. These creatures are apparently meant to physically represent the tortured thoughts in the mind of Max Payne. This creature feature aspect does not exist in the videogame and it’s an interesting if not entirely plausible addition from the mind of writer Beau Thorne. Moore invests his visuals with equal doses of reality and fantasy in an uneasy mix that has you wondering what’s real and what’s Memorex. Subjective POV camerawork and slow-motion shots sometimes give us the feeling we are watching Matrix but the stylistic touches do seem to be in line with the character’s journey. Moore has laid on the visual effects effortlessly particularly in the creation of the creatures who haunt Payne’s subconscious life.
As a precious equivalent of a handmade dollhouse Marilyn Hotchkiss is based on a 1990 short film narrated by William Hurt about a Pasadena ballroom-dancing school for preteens in which 10-year-olds Steve and Lisa first meet. Now grown up Steve (John Goodman) is dying on a rural road. With his guts splayed over his chest Steve retells his childhood dance memories of Lisa (Camryn Manheim) to a stranger Frank (Robert Carlyle) who finds him lying there. Coincidentally Frank is also taking the same Marilyn Hotchkiss ballroom dancing class now taught by Marilyn’s prim and proper daughter Marienne (Mary Steenburgen) as an adult. As Steve is leaving life Frank is re-starting his and the two of them connected through dance. Subplots of the ballroom dancers and Frank’s therapy partners are an interesting departure to the colored textures of human anxiety. The actors bring a wealth of experience and professionalism to their roles which are pared down for efficiency. Carlyle (Trainspotting) leads the way with modest conflicted restraint carrying the group’s collective acting abilities on his shoulders. Group scenes allow Oscar-nominee David Paymer to play off Sean Astin while Oscar-winner Marisa Tomei matches seductive physical moves with Carlyle in dancing scenes. Manheim is perfectly ugly for the haggard house-bound adult Lisa smoking cigarettes and unaware of her lifetime effect on Steve. The roster is so tight that Danny DeVito is stuffed into a lower bed bunk as a wise prisoner with about five minutes of screen time. Donnie Wahlberg is the actor to get most excited about. His flamboyant turns on the dance floor--think Dodgeball’s Ben Stiller with a stalker’s sense of violent romanticism--hint at the former NKOTB’s acting ability. Wahlberg in the tradition of his brother Mark could be another brooding Dirk Diggler. Despite the big-name talent Marilyn Hotchkiss is small which may explain its reception (or lack thereof) since its Jan. 2005 Sundance premiere. Its a little rough around the edges coming from director Randall Miller (The Sixth Man Houseguest) whose last work was in late ‘90s television. With Marilyn Hotchkiss Miller creates a time-capsule-like effect with quaint dialogue and close-up camera shots. The director also wrote the script which is limited in its scope. A handful of the same settings (the dancehall the therapy room) create a monotony and lack of momentum; the drama is contained. But the color schemes affect the moods of some shots such as a whitewash over Goodman’s dying scene in the ambulance--and the dance scenes have that certain joie de vivre. Marilyn Hotchkiss might be the movie Miller was born to make but it just doesn’t quite reach the winner’s circle of timeless classics.