Before 1974's Death Wish, which turned Charles Bronson from an obscure semi-heavy into a full-fledged action hero, Westerns were the genre that specialized in sagas about easygoing types turned vigilantes by fate and the vagaries of the legal system. But the Bronson franchise ushered in multiple variations on the theme, often starring actors you'd never quite envision blowing up cars and criminals—Kevin Bacon, say, or Jodie Foster.
F. Gary Gray's Law Abiding Citizen takes the genre one step further, turning the Bronson figure into a vengeful mastermind while turning the film into a combination morality play and psychological chess match. Shot entirely in and around Philadelphia, Gray's amped-up thriller completes the process by adding some courtroom theatrics and 21st century espionage and gadgetry to the mix. But the main thread revolves around the face-off between two compelling and uncomfortably similar figures.
Nick Rice (Jamie Foxx) is a brilliant attorney and legal pragmatist whose only concern is maintaining his 94 (or 95) percent conviction rate. Clyde Shelton (Gerard Butler) is a brains-behind-the-caper type who devises strategy scenarios for one of the movies' many unnamed spy agencies. He's presented as a covert genius, but his brainpower goes only so far—no farther, in fact, than his front door, which he opens like an idiot to home invaders who kill his wife and daughter and leave him concussed.
Busy building a career on plea bargains with little regard for the victims, Rice cuts a deal with one of the killers, not even caring whether he even got the right one. He soon learns Shelton isn't the sort to answer a miscarriage of justice with a strongly worded letter to the editor. Instead, the retired weapons wizard retaliates with a brutally violent campaign designed not just to square things, but to expose the entire system's corruption and ineptitude.
Gray wisely makes both characters equally flawed and appealing, playing Butler's wronged-family-man fury off Foxx's callous self-assurance. Shelton's a more caring family man than Rice, who routinely blows off his daughter's cello recitals and spends the bulk of his time at the office or in court, and it's impossible not to relish the remote-controlled paybacks the grieving father rigs for the baddest of the bad guys. But as he becomes consumed with his quest, he shifts our sympathies to Rice, whose most appealing quality is that he's played by Jamie Foxx.
Concocted with gimmicky ruthlessness by screenwriter Kurt Wimmer, Law Abiding Citizen tries to have it both ways, exploring the extremes of vigilantism but exploiting them for thrills. But as he showed in the underrated Samuel L. Jackson-Kevin Spacey thriller The Negotiator, director Gray has a knack for action-movie theatrics that rely on character interaction and acting chemistry more than violent encounters and situations (although this has plenty of both). Among a good supporting cast, Viola Davis and Bruce McGill stand out in secondary roles. But ultimately it's the clash between Butler and Foxx that makes Law Abiding Citizen juicier than expected. If nothing else, the grisly retribution doled out by Butler's character should have attorneys everywhere more willing to go to trial.