In 1817, philosopher and poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge devised a formula for fiction known as the suspension of disbelief. It theorizes that an audience is willing to overlook certain preposterous aspects of a story in order to better engross itself in the unfolding narrative. “Law Abiding Citizen,” the latest film from director F. Gary Gray (“Be Cool”), tries harder to prove Coleridge wrong than almost any other film this year. It’s so absurd, so nonsensical, so offensively stupid that one has to wonder if it’s some sort of nihilist exercise in bad filmmaking that exceeds apathy and dives straight into contempt for logic.

Law Abiding Citizen

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Overture

The titular citizen is Clyde Shelton (Gerard Butler, “300”), a retired spy who goes on a killing spree from inside prison after his wife and daughter are killed in the film’s first 30 seconds by two worthless and unimportant characters who have no connection to the succeeding two hours. Jamie Foxx (“Collateral”) is Nick Rice, a rising star in the Philadelphia district attorney’s office who has built his career on orchestrating shady plea bargains — including one with the murderer of Shelton’s family. It’s up to Rice to stop Shelton’s murderous rampage, because apparently Philadelphia doesn’t have any police officers or detectives.

Speaking of Philadelphia, the audience has no idea the film takes place in the City of Brotherly Love until the final 30 minutes (bear in mind that two of the most important characters are the district attorney and the mayor). Characters talk about terrified citizens evacuating “our proud city,” and putting a cop on every corner of “the city” and how Shelton owns a number of properties outside of “city limits;” meanwhile, the audience throws up its hands and asks, “What city?”

As District Attorney Rice, Foxx performs about as admirably as could be imagined of a man playing a hybrid lawyer-cop. Unless the real Philadelphia has recently adopted a radical form of law enforcement, its public servants do not fly police helicopters or attempt to defuse bombs or carry a firearm as Foxx does.

While Foxx doesn’t do anything to inspire hatred — he didn’t write his own bad dialogue, after all — Butler’s performance is a laughable sight to behold. His accent, purportedly intended to reflect a native of the United States’ East Coast, falls somewhere between Scottish brogue and perpetual chewer of skirt steak. His face is continuously twisted into what is supposed to be an evil grin but looks more like a visit to the dentist. More problematic than his bad accent and smile, however, is his deplorably cold reaction to his family’s murder.

Butler’s Shelton is the driving force behind what makes “Citizen” so loathsome. The problem begins when director Gray offers no more than a title card reading “Ten Years Later” to illustrate Shelton’s descent from sorrow to murderous rage. Although time has passed within the film, the audience is jarred by the tasteless proximity of his family’s death to the beginning of his rampage — he captures, tortures and gruesomely murders the killer within minutes of his family’s demise, real-time. And he does so with a sick smile on his face, while taunting the helpless criminal he has strapped to a table in a warehouse basement. Shelton’s vengeance is complete, seemingly before the movie even begins, and it’s exacted in a manner that inspires repulsion rather than sympathy. As a result, he’s given no humanity to counterbalance his villainous qualities.

It’s not unreasonable to portray a man violently deprived of his wife and daughter as mentally unstable. But Shelton shows no signs of such emotional vulnerability or progression. It’s as if this ice-cold maniac just happened to have been married with a child — as if his domestic past has no genuine impact on his soul, and his family’s death merely provided him with the opportunity to kill dozens of people and falsely justify it.

“Law Abiding Citizen” has a slew of problems. It’s poorly written, poorly acted and poorly directed. But worse than that, it’s offensive. It takes a man in a potentially vulnerable position and transforms him, unnecessarily and inexplicably, into a gleeful mass murderer. If Gray wanted to make Shelton the villain, that’s fine. But by failing to intercut Shelton’s killing spree with some sign — any sign — of grief for his departed wife and daughter, the director destroyed the only shred of believability he might have otherwise achieved.

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