Philly Flix: Law Abiding Citizen

In Philly Flix, I write about films set in and around Philadelphia, with each column highlighting a different one. I’m interested not only in the quality of the films, but in how they portray Philadelphia to the rest of the world.


What’s That Jawn About?

In this nutty Philadelphia-set 2009 thriller, human slab of meat Gerard Butler plays an engineer named Clyde Shelton whose family is murdered in a violent home invasion. Jamie Foxx plays his attorney, Nick Rice, who makes a few shortcutting legal deals to get some jail time for the offending men, out of fear the DNA evidence won’t securely convict them for the harsh sentence that Shelton wants. Needless to say, Shelton is angry. And needless to say, if Gerard Butler is in your movie, you know that some level of charm infused remorseless violence is imminent.

Flash forward ten years later, the attackers die gruesome deaths in mysterious circumstances; Shelton is arrested for the crimes. But once in prison, things only get crazier, as seemingly coordinated bombings and terrorist attacks start happening all over Philadelphia, targeting all of the higher ups of the Philadelphia criminal justice system. The catch is there are no seen attackers. With Shelton securely behind bars, nobody can figure out what is going on, though we the viewers have a pretty good idea who is behind it.

It’s a fairly tense and well-made thriller for a while, but things get crazier and crazier as the movie goes fully off the rails and turns into F. Gary  Gray’s version of batshit camp. The film’s attempts to turn it into an analysis of our flawed criminal justice system are laughable. In a sentencing hearing, Shelton interrupts the judge to yell “whatever happened to right and wrong?!” followed by “I bet you take it up the ass!” It’s cringe-worthy to think about the laughs that must get, and I feel dumber for feeling like that was catered to me.

It gets surprisingly gory and dark too, as we learn that Shelton knows a bit more about murder and violence than your average engineer. As we learn through his actions and some exposition about his secret past, he’s actually quite versed in the traditions of torture (as well as paralyzing serums extracted from Caribbean Puffer Fish) and shows us new ways to reuse the bone in a T-Bone steak. A YouTube collection of the “The 100 Greatest Movie Threats Of All Time” includes a line from this film; “I’m gonna pull the whole thing down. I’m gonna bring the whole fuckin’ diseased corrupt temple down on your heads. It’s gonna be biblical,” which is honestly quite an awesome thing to say. It helps that Gerard Butler turns the crazed maniac genius bit up to 11 there. Don’t even get me started on the laughable nonsense of the big reveal, which really wouldn’t matter much if the movie were very good.

So all in all, it’s pretty  bad movie. But the two leads are charismatic enough to make it an enjoyable watch.



Philly Flavors:

Much of the film takes places in the corridors of Philadelphia City Hall, in Rice’s law quarters, the mayor’s office, etc. There doesn’t seem to be a specific reason why Philadelphia is the setting. I suppose that 1994’s Philadelphia portrays the city as a center of the criminal justice system in America. Perhaps the elevator pitch for this one was “Philadelphia meets Die Hard.” Who knows.

Visually speaking, there are several wide sweeping shots of police cars and motorcades crossing the Ben Franklin Bridge, one in which they go to arrest Shelton at his secluded home in the woods. The scenes of Shelton in prison were filmed up at the now closed Holmesburg prison, up on Torresdale Ave in the northeast. Oh, and who makes an appearance to swear Rice in as District Attorney other than our former mayor, Michael Nutter!  One scene looks like it was filmed in deep North Philly, a place I couldn’t catch the street signs for but looks like Strawberry Mansion. Laurel Hill Cemetery, perhaps one of the more filmed cemeteries in cinema history, also makes an appearance. Even though Philadelphia itself doesn’t play much of a character, there’s plenty to recognize while you watch.


Accent Watch: 

Nothing like a Philadelphia accent here. Everyone has the bland, neutral east coast tough guy thing going on.


Cheesesteak Rating:

A late night steak from a street cart with a few friends…you’re drunk as hell…and you’re in New York City. It’s really not very good, it might hurt later on, but it feels right at the time.

Author: Andy Elijah

I am a musician and music therapist who loves movies too. Raised in Maryland, I have been proud to call Philadelphia home for five years. Sounds can be heard at Baker Man and Drew. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd

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