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.
In the teensy-weensy town of Passaic New Jersey there exists a dying breed: a video-rental store--as in VHS not DVD. Just across the street from said store exists a power plant. And in between the store and power plant exists a doofus named Jerry (Jack Black). Yeah it’s a disaster waiting to happen (at least in writer-director Michel Gondry’s kooky mind). One night when Jerry sets out to sabotage the power plant whose microwaves he swears are killing him that disaster happens. He winds up getting zapped and even worse erasing the contents of every single tape at the nearby rental store Be Kind Rewind. It was already at risk of being demolished in favor of an aesthetic upgrade to the building but this turn of events would seem to be the nail in its coffin. And when a faithful customer (Mia Farrow) threatens to tell Be Kind Rewind’s owner (Danny Glover) unless Ghostbusters is in stock by the end of the day Jerry and his friend Mike (Mos Def) the store’s loyal employee must think and act quickly. And so they do recreating Ghostbusters and every other movie that is requested for rental. Unwitting customers are none the wiser and before long their store-made movies become a hit in the neighborhood and possibly a source of sufficient enough funds to save Be Kind Rewind from demolition. That is until Hollywood comes knockin’. Jack Black continues to expand his comedic horizons with Be Kind proving that virtually any role calling for funny has his name written on it. This isn’t his prototypical flaunt-your-paunch scream-like-a-maniac role and as a result Black’s versatility within the realm has never been so apparent. He gives the well-meaning dimwit several layers--vulnerability imagination pitifulness ambition--but maintains the recognizable energy for which we all know and love him for. Rapper-turned-actor Mos Def however is rather bland in playing straight-man to Black’s klutz. It’s occasionally a nice disparate dynamic between the two actors but Mos much like some of his past movies (16 Blocks The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy) just doesn’t seem suited for the style at play. Glover meanwhile is suited for Be Kind lending stability to the quasi-fairytale as an old-school sage. Then there’s Farrow who only further tarnishes her once legendary status with another laughable role choice and performance. Of course it’s hard to ever look at Farrow the same way following her role in last year’s worst movie The Ex. In a somewhat disappointing turn of events Michel Gondry’s (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind The Science of Sleep) screenplay for Be Kind Rewind just doesn’t make the grade. It goes from a silly conceit in the beginning to a way-too-feel-good ending using filmmaking as a sappy uniting-the-people cure-all to get from point A to B. And oddly enough the movie often resembles a traditional slapstick-y comedy. Luckily Gondry the director comes to the rescue. Chief among his accomplishments here are the meta moments the film-within-a-film sequences. The scenes are truly enlightening and elevate Be Kind a great deal. In fact a movie full of such scenes would make a great next project for Gondry--and maybe would’ve made a better project out of Be Kind. The sequences which thriftily remake mainstream classics like Ghostbusters Driving Miss Daisy and Robocop--the only kind of movies that would exist in a VHS-rental store--offer a glimpse into Gondry’s fantasy mind where the creativity wheels are always spinning and the camera is always rolling. Some of the remakes are featured in Be Kind’s trailer and it’s unfortunately one of those cases where the trailer shows the movie’s best parts. But it’s still worth seeing and his fans will likely not suffer such a letdown.