Film: Law Abiding Citizen
The 2009 film Law Abiding Citizen
stars Gerard Butler
and Jamie Foxx
on opposing sides of a justice system gone wrong.
Clyde Shelton (Butler), a talented engineer and family man, watches his life fall apart before his eyes when two thugs break into his house, which results in the death of his wife and child right in front of him. Prosecutor Nick Rice (Foxx) only has circumstancial evidence on the thug who commited the murders, so he gives the thug a sweet plea bargain in exchange for testimony against his less-guilty accomplice (who receives the death penalty) – against Clyde's wishes.
Ten years later, the accomplice's execution goes awry and the police find the thug dead. Rice has Shelton arrested for the acts, and Shelton appears interested in a plea bargain of his own. After he turns down a deal, however, Shelton initiates a plan designed to bring down Rice, his fellow prosecutors, and the justice system itself. As the dominoes start falling, Rice has to find out how Shelton keeps pulling off his plan – and stop him for good.
Law Abiding Citizen contains examples of the following tropes:
- Abandoned Warehouse: Clyde liquidates his assets and buys a large number of abandoned factories so he can carry out his plans undisturbed.
- Adult Fear: Having your home being invaded is bad, and crippling you is worse, but the ultimate nightmare is when he rapes and murders your wife and daughter in front of you. Then, a killer gets off with a light sentence just to make sure that the justice department can get the other guy.
- Aluminum Christmas Trees: The exploding mobile phone Clyde uses to kill the judge? In Real Life, Shin-Bet used one to kill a senior member of Hamas, as documented in The Gatekeepers.
- And I Must Scream: Clyde injects Darby with a paralysing neurotoxin that keeps Darby helpless but fully conscious as Clyde goes about with his revenge (see below). To ensure Darby doesn't black out from the pain, Clyde delivers a dose of adrenaline to boot.
- An Arm and a Leg: Clyde cuts off Darby's fingers, limbs, penis, and head in succession.
- Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking: Clyde concluding an insulting rant against Judge Burch by saying, "And I bet you take it up the ass, bitch!"
- Asshole Victim: No one feels sorry for Darby when Shelton kills him.
- Pretty much the whole plot of the movie.
- Clyde himself could easily fall under this trope.
- And Some Other Stuff: No-one's specific about what chemical Clyde used to make the lethal injection more painful.
- Anyone Can Die: Nealy half the main cast dies by the end, including Shelton.
- Anti-Hero: Nick doesn't care nearly as much about justice as he does about his conviction rate. His flaws and mistakes may have created the villain – but he still tries to protect the innocent as best as he can.
- Anti-Villain: Clyde.
- Badass Boast: "I'm gonna pull the whole thing down. I'm gonna bring the whole fuckin' diseased, corrupt temple down on your head. It's gonna be biblical."
- Earlier – "And if we don't?" "Then I kill everyone."
- Backwards-Firing Gun: When Darby realises the 'police officer' is Clyde, he pulls the trigger on the Glock he took off his gunbelt. The Glock is not only unloaded, but pulling the trigger releases needles in the grip injecting Darby with a paralysing neurotoxin.
- Batman Gambit: Clyde plans and executes a very successful one. It still fails in the end, though.
- Best Served Cold: Clyde spends ten years plotting his revenge (He says it's not about revenge, but it's definitely at the route of it) against the entire justice system.
- Beware the Nice Ones: Clyde
- Black and Gray Morality: Let's see. He's a Well-Intentioned Extremist, willing to kill anyone to make his rather simplistic political statements. They're the forces of justice, who start out incompetent and unable to put away the bad guys, and wind up violating civil rights at the drop of a hat and staging vigilante executions.
- Buried Alive: Clyde buries Darby's defense attorney with a tank of oxygen and an IV feed until a specific time. Nick arrives to the location eight minutes late.
- Counting Bullets: Darby empties his revolver at the police cars pulling up at his door. As he's escaping across the rooftops, the mysterious voice on the phone tells him to wipe the gun for prints and toss it.
Darby: No way!
Voice: You fired six times, genius.
- Cowboy Cop: Detective Dunnigan
- Crazy-Prepared: Clyde
- Crusading Widower: Clyde
- Disproportionate Retribution: This film could have had this trope name for its title. Clyde watches the murder of his wife and child, and Rice cuts a deal (against Clyde's wishes) that sends the accomplice to death row and the real killer back to the streets. Ten years later, Clyde gets his revenge (including a bonus punishment for the already-condemned man), then tries to destroy the entire US legal system, all while leaving Nick alive so he can witness the devastating consequences of a difficult-yet-justifiable decision made a decade ago. He also kills a lot of people who had little to nothing to do with the deal, including Nick's assistant.
- Do You Trust Me?: Nick asks this of Clyde before revealing that the DA's office struck a plea bargain with the killer.
- The Engineer: Clyde himself obviously, and he's an extraordinarily magnificent one at that.
- External Combustion: Clyde plants remote-control car bombs inside the gas tanks, where a search won't find them. The protagonist is Forced to Watch as the woman he mentored struggles to escape from a vehicle with sabotaged locks as the other cars explode one by one, before her car also blows up.
- Mr. Fanservice: Clyde, due to being played by Gerard Butler.
- Every Car Is a Pinto: The film averts this trope – even after taking several seconds of heavy machine gun fire, a van fails to explode. At least until Clyde nails it with a rocket.
- Exact Words: Clyde, to Darby: "I want to keep you out of prison." He didn't say what he wanted to do to him instead.
- When Nick first interrogates Clyde, Clyde makes sure to word all of his responses in such a way that Nick doesn't get a confession.
- Face Death with Dignity: Clyde
- Failure Gambit: Clyde Shelton confesses to a murder because he wants to be imprisoned, as that becomes key in his plan, while ironically giving him more freedom than he would have had otherwise.
- Famous Last Words: Often.
- Forced to Watch: Darby to Clyde, although he probably wasn't intending it.
- Clyde does this to Darby by suspending a mirror over Darby during his torture and cutting off his eyelids. Nick also has to watch his friends die in the car attacks, especially Sarah – who's locked in her car waiting for it to explode, which it does.
- Forgot About His Powers: Clyde – ordinary suburban homeowner, described as "a tinkerer", but turns out to be a genius in defence and violence whose abilities border on the fantastic. But he didn't bother to protect his own home from an intruder with a baseball bat. And why? Because he works best when he has prep time, not when he's surprised by said thug.
- Gambit Roulette: Clyde is at times just impossibly good at guessing exactly what everyone is going to do.
- Genre Deconstruction:
- Whether intentionally or not, It's basically a movie about a Super Villain who suffered great personal tragedy and is now trying to bring down the justice system that failed him. There's no superheroes, no setpieces, and his plan ultimately fails thanks to Nick figuring the last bomb's location out. And he only was able to do that because Clyde accidentally killed Nick's assistant, whose boyfriend happened to have access to the right information, but wasn't willing to risk his job. Until his girlfriend, ostensibly just a woman who got Stuffed into the Fridge, was killed by Clyde.
- Though it's not explicitly noted, Nick's assistant is just one of several people who are blown up by Clyde. The only reason she can be considered Stuffed into the Fridge is because she got a name and character development.
- Alternatively, it's a deconstruction of revenge thrillers. Instead of reveling in the Vigilante Man pursuing his own brand of justice, once he quickly succeeds in Jumping Off the Slippery Slope we find ourselves rooting for the people within the system trying to put a stop to his out-of-control Roaring Rampage of Revenge.
- Get Into Jail Free
- Gory Discretion Shot: The camera cuts away as Clyde begins his work on Darby, at least, in the theatrical version. The Director's Cut doesn't cut away...
- Groin Attack: Offscreen, but...
- He Who Fights Monsters: Clyde.
- Harmful to Minors: Rice's daughter puts on what she thinks is a DVD of her ballet recital, but it's actually a DVD of Shelton torturing Darby to death.
- Hoist by His Own Petard: Clyde is warned not to remotely activate his last bomb. He does so anyway, only to realize it was moved to under his seat.
- Hollywood Law: Ames must have had one bad defense attorney if he's put to death purely on the say-so of his partner, on the question of which one of them was a murderer, a partner who is implied to have a much longer and nastier criminal record to boot. Apparently he never thought to call the husband as a witness either. And the prosecution are the only ones who even remotely care about his opinion as well, and still dismiss it.
- The reason he's sentenced and his partner is effectively let off is a piece of evidence was contaminated by a CSU during the investigation, and all the admissible evidence is suppressed under Fruit of the Poisonous Tree doctrine. The problem with this is, Fruit of the Poisnous Tree only applies to evidence collected through rights violations, and more often than not it only applies to any confession made by the defendant. A piece of evidence contaminated during investigation of the crimescene isn't applicable.
- Hypocritical Humor: Nick keeps leaving his cell phone on while in court with a certain judge. While in a meeting with her later, her cell rings, and he calls her on it. Turns out there's a bomb in the phone.
- Idiot Ball: Clyde's non-confession would have been harder to pull off if Nick had announced something along the lines of "For the record, he just nodded his head".
- The whole plot could have been avoided if Nick had refused Darby's deal, and instead made a similar deal with Ames.
- I Have a Family: Subverted. Darby is about to execute the police officer whose car he stole. The man says, "What about my wife, my little girl? I'll never see them again!" Darby is unimpressed...until he realises the cop is Clyde in disguise.
Officer: You know why I won't see my wife and little girl again? [takes off disguise to reveal himself as Clyde] Because you took them from me.
- Impersonating an Officer: The tasered officer in the police car Darby steals turns out to be Clyde in disguise.
- Improvised Weapon User: Clyde shivs his cellmate with the bone from a T-bone steak
- Instant Sedation: Instant paralysis, but close enough.
- Ironic Echo: Clyde deliberately repeats Darby's catch phrase just before dismembering him alive.
- Another one to Nick, "It's not what you know it's what you can prove in court"
- It's Personal: Once Nick's understudy is killed, Nick is ready to go to war to take Clyde down.
- I Was Never Here: The CIA assassin who meets with Nick and Cantrell opens by saying that this meeting isn't taking place. Also when Nick sees the final email sent to Sarah by her mysterious boyfriend, the email says, "I never sent this".
- Janitor Impersonation Infiltration: Clyde plants a bomb in City Hall by smuggling it through security in his cleaning supplies.
- Jerkass: Nick Rice starts out as this.
- Joker Immunity: A major point of the movie - the legal system is tied up in tons of red tape and thus no matter what they do they can't get rid of Shelton or even move him somewhere secure, so he is continually able to commit murders with relative impunity.
- Karmic Death: Darby gets dismembered alive by Shelton, who recites the same line that Darby did before he committed the murders.
- One judge scolds Nick repeatedly for not turning off his cell phone. She was killed by a bomb in her cell phone, which she hypocritically answered during a meeting with Nick.
- Karma Houdini: Nick Rice is this as his desire to have a spotless conviction record was the last push that drove Shelton into madness and thus indirectly responsible for all the deaths including the innocent ones but gets to walk away unharmed when people far less guilty died.
- Laser-Guided Karma: Less than 10 seconds after displaying flagrant contempt for duty, the rules and even the Constitution itself a bomb goes off directly in the judge's ear.
- Shelton himself gets a dose of this, as his termination of the understudy in the car bomb spree leads directly to the understudy's boyfriend risking his job to give Nick vital information, and Nick being willing to rig Clyde's super-napalm bomb to the underside of the prison cot.
- Though that information was sent to Sarah's email address, implying it had been sent before he knew she'd been killed.
- Ironically, this contempt for the Constitutional rights of the accused, putting stopping them ahead of the rules, is similar to what Clyde appeared to be trying to encourage.
- Locked Room Mystery: Inverted; Clyde is somehow able to orchestrate elaborate murders while locked in solitary confinement.
- The Lost Lenore: Clyde's wife, for whose killer Clyde plots a particularly Karmic Death. For an added bonus, his child is murdered too.
- Luxury Prison Suite: Clyde insists a special mattress and a porterhouse steak be placed in his cell in exchange for his confession. The other inmates all shout with rage when they see these delivered, and the warden pointedly says he'd hate to be the only one who has something in a wing full of the Have-Nots.
- The Man Behind the Man: Who's Clyde's partner? Turns out it's Clyde.
- Might as Well Not Be in Prison at All: Clyde still commits murders, even in jail. Turns out getting sent to solitary confinement was part of his plan, since part of the preparations he made before getting arrested included digging a secret tunnel accessible from there.
- Mission Control: Clyde pulls a dark version of this trope on Darby, helping him to evade the police and providing an escape vehicle, but only so he'll walk right into his clutches.
- Mood Whiplash: Clyde switching between his distraught Vigilante Man act to Magnificent Bastard Smug Snake during Nick's interrogation.
- Oh, Crap: Clyde's reaction to the revelation that the bomb had been moved to his cell.
- Averted seconds later, when he resigns himself to his fate, and utterly keeps his calm even with super napalm filling his cell.
- Ooh, Me Accent's Slipping: A couple times, Gerard Butler falls into a little of his native Scottish.
Clyde: [to Darby] You know why I'll never see my wife and daughter again?
Clyde: [removing his disguise] Cuz yew took them from me.
- Pay Evil unto Evil: Clyde dismembering Darby for killing his family.
- Product Placement: Nick's understudy uses a Mac (apparently running Windows), and in one scene the staff prominently rolls in large amounts of Pepsi and Dunkin' Donuts. Every car is a Chevrolet.
- Pun-Based Title: The dash is missing from "Law-Abiding" to show that it's the law abiding the citizen, not the other way around.
- Rage Against The Legal System: Clyde's reason for his Roaring Rampage of Revenge.
- Red Herring: Nick's understudy is a minor one - around the time Clyde starts amping up his attacks she starts questioning Nick about whether or not he's in the right, and around the time they start questioning whether he has an accomplice inside their system we learn more about her mysterious boyfriend who never shows his face and "isn't ready" to meet Nick - the audience is briefly led to believe that she may be working with Shelton, and the boyfriend stuff was just another trick of his. When she dies, that part of the audience who believed that may even think Shelton pulled a You Have Outlived Your Usefulness on her. By the end of the movie, however, her boyfriend does appear, over the internet to give crucial information.
- Roger Ebert also thought this about Colm Meaney's character.
- Also Nick has a wife and daughter just like Clyde used to; especially after his daughter gets the DVD in the mail, it's implied Clyde might go after them so Nick will know how it feels to lose them. He never does.
- Roaring Rampage of Revenge: Guess who. It's quite the body count at the end for Clyde.
- Rube Goldberg Hates Your Guts: The movie runs on this trope.
- Secret Underground Passage
- Shoe Phone: Clyde's specialty was creating lethal versions of these.
- Shout-Out: Clyde's "biblical" threat to "pull this [...] temple down on all your heads" is a reference to Samson. Who killed himself in the process, incidentally.
- Sleeping Dummy: Clyde uses a simple pillows under the sheet trick to hide the fact that he's not in his cell. Justified as the cell is dark and in solitary, so no-one goes in to check.
- Somebody Set Up Us the Bomb
- Spanner in the Works: Clyde kills Nick's staff, including his blonde understudy. Said blonde's boyfriend happened to have access to critical information that he wasn't willing to risk his job over...until his girlfriend was killed.
- Strawman Political: Although it shows up the dark side of vigilantism, the movie strongly suggests that the justice system is incapable of dealing with violent criminals, and "proves" this with some questionable logic;
- "Plea bargains are bad, because here are some arbitrarily bad plea bargains for no adequately explained reason."
- "The exclusionary rule is bad, because it got DNA evidence deemed inadmissible when there was no explanation as to what was illegal about how it was obtained."
- "The presumption of innocence is bad, because this guy who we, the audience, know committed a crime is being granted bail before his trial."
- Strike Me Down with All of Your Hatred: Potentially Clyde's motive (well, it's either that or he's genuinely an Omnicidal Maniac). Particularly suggested by this exchange;
Clyde: Our final offer? Is that what this is?
Nick: I don't make deals with murderers any more. You taught me that.
- Tampering with Food and Drink: Clyde's first victim has the chemicals in his lethal injection switched so he'll die a painful death.
- The Unseen: We never see Sarah's boyfriend.
- This Is the Part Where...: Nick says to Cantrell; "Is this the bit where you tell some old fable or wise tale?" Cantrell does.
- Clyde asks his cellmate if he's about to threaten him unless he gets some of the steak and eggs meal that's just been delivered to his cell. The inmate gives a Cut His Heart Out with a Spoon threat, so Clyde calmly tells the man he's welcome to join him.
- Time Skip: after the sentencing of Darby, cue to 10 years later.
- Title Drop: Clyde in court, arguing to be granted bail.
- To the Pain: Clyde goes into great detail about everything he's doing and is about to do to Darby.
- Trailers Always Spoil: Clyde's past as a government weapon designer and "executive action" mastermind isn't revealed for over half the movie. The reveal itself is in the trailer, along with the Judge's execution, the mass car bombing, the drone attack in the cemetery and Clyde's napalm-induced end.
- Unstoppable Rage: Clyde. A character who knew him before the film mentions the only way to stop him would be to shoot him in the head because 'If Clyde wants you dead, you're dead.'
- Villain-by-Proxy Fallacy: Clyde exacts brutal revenge against both of the burglars who were there when his family were killed, even though only one of them carried out the killings, and launches a campaign of terror aimed at bringing down the Justice Department to punish them for the miscarriage of justice that allowed the murderer to get a lesser sentence.
- Villain Protagonist: Clyde is briefly alluded to be this in the trailer and the movie when the camera follows him up to the murder of Darby. The movie's actual protagonist turns out to be Nick.
- Villains Never Lie: Clyde usually upholds his end of bargains (as long as the other side complies down to the minute), gives hints as to what he's going to do, and confesses when he's ready to. It's conspicuously averted when he tells the judge he's a law-abiding citizen, though (in other words, he tells the truth everywhere except in court). He also falsely tells Darby that he tazed a male cop.
- Technically, he did taze a male cop, Darby just assumed that the tazed cop was in the front seat of the cop car, not in its trunk.
- Well-Intentioned Extremist: On one hand, Clyde Shelton is sympathetic – he watched his wife and daughter get brutally murdered before his eyes, then watched the thug who did it get off with a slap on the wrist. On the other hand, that doesn't give him an excuse to try and destroy the justice system.
- What the Hell, Hero?: The entire point of the movie. Clyde thinks he's doing this to the entire Justice system, and Nick keeps calling him out on it.
- "Fuck [my] Civil Rights." Everyone in the courtroom is looking at Clyde like he's crazy.
- Woobie, Destroyer of Worlds: Clyde eventually tries to destroy the entire justice department of Philadelphia, because they failed to properly punish the slayers of his family.
- You're Insane!: When Clyde deliberately blows his chance at bail with his Motive Rant, Nick asks him if he's trying for an insanity plea. Other characters speculate that he's gone insane, though if that's the case it doesn't effect Clyde's ability to plan and execute his crimes.