Films go through a long process between the screenplay that sells and what gets released in theatres. With Script to Screen, we want to examine how the the development and production processes impact a film. Did a bad script yield a good film? Would the filmmakers have been better off shooting the script they bought rather than rewriting it into something more generic? We hope to answer questions like these. Since the column is more analytical in nature, it will contain HUGE SPOILERS for the scripts and films discussed. Do not read on if you haven’t seen Law Abiding Citizen.
I can’t sugarcoat it: I’ve never read a stupider screenplay than Law Abiding Citizen. (The script for the upcoming Kane & Lynch movie, ironically also to be directed by F. Gary Gray and costarring Jamie Foxx, is a close second.) I’ve read worse scripts — scripts that don’t even work on a conceptual level — but here’s a script with noble intentions, a solid premise, and some of the dumbest writing ever featured in a major motion picture (this includes the Star Wars prequels). It’s the sort of script where a scene starts with Benson Clyde (changed to Clyde Shelton in the film, played by Gerard Butler) saying, “You don’t have any evidence, so you have to let me go,” and ends with him saying, “Even though you still don’t have any evidence, I’ll confess.” Stupider than that: None of the high-powered prosecutors listening to him consider that logic-impaired 180-degree turn suspicious.
The script starts out with some promise. Two men murder Clyde’s wife and 10-year-old daughter, and although they’re caught pretty much red-handed, a judge rules some of the physical evidence inadmissible, which ruins A.D.A. Nick Price’s (changed to “Nick Rice” in the film, played by Jamie Foxx) case. Left with no alternative, he allows one of the murderers to plead guilty to a lesser charge in exchange for testifying against the other. One gets five years in prison, the other gets the death penalty, but Clyde feels like justice has not been done. The system is broken, and he’s going to fix it — with extreme prejudice.
What felt initially like a fun Death Wish clone that takes the tack of sending the wronged vigilante after the lawyers and cops who bungle a broken system (rather than the criminals roaming the streets) quickly turns into an incredibly stupid attempt at a psychological thriller, a verbal chess match (to use the script’s hackneyed metaphor) between Nick and Clyde that amounts to a lot of stupid dialogue, a lot of stupid twists, and a lot of gratuitous, Saw-esque violence.
You see, Clyde swaps out the death-row murderer’s lethal injection chemicals for some compounds that, when combined, basically burn him to death from the outside in. He leaves some evidence to suggest it was the other murderer, whom he then “saves” by posing as a crooked cop, paralyzes with yet another mysterious compound, then drags to a barn filled with implements of torture.
But Clyde gets caught pretty quickly. He wants to get caught. He wants to confess — even though he protests that they have nothing on him, in a horrible attempt to show the cleverness of his wordplay and the keen intellect that comes from spending 10 years looking up the words “reasonable” and “doubt” in the dictionary — because he wants to prove the system is broken. “To whom?” you might ask. Ostensibly to Nick, since Nick is the only one involved in his family’s murder case Clyde doesn’t find some kind of comically twisted way to kill. The fact that he’s stuck in jail proves a pretty convincing alibi, and Clyde relishes Nick’s inability to figure out how Clyde keeps killing people or who he’s working with on the outside.
I don’t care how many times I repeat the word — I can’t overstate this script’s stupidity. It takes a pretty solid premise — an average Joe feels wronged by the criminal justice system, so he takes revenge — to mind-bogglingly stupid places. Scenes where Clyde tries to negotiate the finer things in life in exchange for information about the rash of murders related to his case fall flat because he’s already made it clear that he doesn’t need to be in jail to begin with. Here’s the script’s biggest offense, though: Clyde isn’t an average Joe. He’s not a man who simply felt so driven by anger that he spent a decade planning a wildly complicated revenge scheme. He’s an inventor who worked for a CIA think-tank to develop novel ways of killing people. That is, at the very least, an above-average Joe. It also completely undermines what the script is supposed to be about: a regular guy driven to extremes.
I appreciated the opening scenes portraying Nick with a sense of palpable apathy toward a clearly wounded Clyde. To Nick, Clyde’s case is just one of many. It shows Nick as a callous dick, which is not a quality often found in a protagonist. It can work — ever seen House? — but Law Abiding Citizen is too afraid to give its ostensible hero a plausible Achilles heel. After that initial introduction, writers Kurt Wimmer and Frank Darabont spend the following 30 pages trying desperately to make him likable — showing him express guilt over the Clyde case, questioning whether or not he made the right decision (constantly reassured along the way, which by extension is supposed to reassure the audience that Nick had no other choice), and finally revealing him as a kind, loving family man. I’m surprised they didn’t show him running a free soup kitchen on the weekends.
Notwithstanding the flop-sweat-drenched pages attempting to make us love Nick, Clyde’s indignation remains righteous. He remains the more empathetic of the two main characters, so how do you solve that problem? Simple: Make him so brazenly, cartoonishly evil that anybody reading it will invariably hear the voice of the baby from Family Guy rather than the combination of Hannibal Lecter and Norman Bates they were going for. This is where the CIA think-tank reveal comes from. It’s one of the rare scripts where writers have backed themselves into a corner by page 30, but instead of rewriting the first 30 pages more coherently, they spend the next 90 trying to write their way out of it.
Of course, they do this at the expense of the film’s initial premise — an average person trying to expose and destroy the flaws of the legal system. What starts out interesting, timely, and believable quickly descends into the sort of absurd script where a bomb is implanted inside the stomach of a dog and everyone balks at Clyde having CDs because their shards can kill, but nobody says a word about him having an iPod, plugged into a docking station that itself is plugged into an electrical outlet via a long extension cord (meaning he could electrocute and/or strangle someone), on a special wooden shelf (which could be dismantled and used to kill).
To my delight, the film gets rid of many of the script’s stupidest elements. In one key scene in the script, Clyde murders his cellmate with a the bones from a rack of lamb provided by the District Attorney’s office (which, inexplicably, nobody raises concerns about, even though they’ve already nixed much less dangerous CDs). The film drops the CD angle to begin with and changes the rack of lamb to a steak, making it a little more surprising and disgusting when he uses the significantly smaller bone to kill the cellmate. The bomb hidden in the dog is replaced with one in a cell phone. The film is filled with minor changes like this, smartening up the finer points of the stupidest thing I’ve ever read.
However, the broad strokes remain just as stupid. Some of the in-between dialogue is different, but that early scene bookended by “You have nothing on me, so let me go”/”No wait, I’ll confess” still remains, as does the notion that “average Joe” Clyde still has the warped mind and psychopathic tendencies of a particularly imaginative weapons designer. It also retains one of the silliest notions — that Clyde would know exactly which jail they’d send him to and where its solitary confinement cells are located, so he could buy abutting property, tunnel in, and get himself locked up in solitary, where each cell now has an escape hatch to his tunnel. Yes, this is how he commits his various deeds without help. Lucky for the screenwriters, Clyde is fabulously wealthy, so he can buy all the cars, property, machine guns, and Semtex needed to dispatch his enemies.
F. Gary Gray knows how to make a great-looking film. Despite his tendency to turn the violence into Hostel-esque torture porn, Gray exploits wonderful Philadelphia locations and makes an appropriately gritty, cold-looking film. Surprisingly, his direction is less assured when it comes to building the suspense this movie requires. I like to imagine he knew exactly how stupid the script was but found himself hamstrung by producer/writer Wimmer and producer/star Butler, who evidently didn’t. As evidence, I can only provide the three thrillers in Gray’s filmography that both lack Law Abiding Citizen’s reckless idiocy and contain the suspense and drama appropriate to a solid thriller: The Negotiator, the underrated Set It Off, and the overrated (but still solid) remake of The Italian Job.
Part of the problem, I suppose, stems from the fact that most of the suspense comes from the talky, two-man conversations between Nick and Clyde, but both Foxx and Butler are at their worst in these scenes. They seem less like intelligent men going toe-to-toe than action stars wondering why the director won’t let them rip off their shirts and bare-knuckle box. I ordinarily like both Foxx and Butler, but boy did I ever not like them here. Strangely, both are fine in scenes with other characters. It’s only when they’re together — the film’s most important moments — that their performances fall flat. Maybe the problem, again, goes back to the notion that they’re supposed to be intelligent men, but the script is far too stupid to convince us of that.
The problems with Law Abiding Citizen start with the script, and they should have ended there. It doesn’t take a Clyde-esque genius to understand that only the premise works. Nothing about the execution is even remotely successful. That this plain fact was ignored in development and the film was made with only minor changes (most improvements, all superficial) is incredibly frustrating. A really good idea got wasted on a dreadful product.
D. B. Bates is a freelance script reader and writer.
— Reviewed December 10, 2010