This isn’t just a film review; it is a one-man discussion of the film.
tl;dr â€“ An excellent film with some implausible components. Definitely worth watching.
This is a vengeance flick, in the same vein as The Brave One and Taken. The premise of this film is simple: Clyde Shelton’s (Gerard Butler) wife and child are murdered by two thugs during a home invasion. Instead of trying to prosecute both thugs, lawyer Nick Rice (Jamie Foxx) makes a deal with the murderer, who agrees to bear witness against his accomplice, who in fact was not guilty of first-degree murder, in return for a three year jail sentence. Naturally Shelton is outraged.
Ten years pass, and in that time Shelton has arranged a variety of elaborate acts of revenge against not only the murderers, but those who saw that justice was more lenient than it should have been. This leaves Rice and the authorities of Philadelphia the task of staying one step ahead of Shelton. This isn’t easy; Shelton has made a career out of devising creative assassinations.
For me, one of the most appealing things about the film is that it’s more complex morally than such films tend to be. In both Taken and The Brave One, the respective anti-heroes laid waste only to people without whom the world would be a better place (not that they necessarily deserved death, of course). In this film it is not only the murderers who are held accountable for their crimes, but people from the DA’s office, justice officials and so on. It soon becomes clear that Shelton has been unhinged by the tragedy that befell his family, and while he never reaches the Hello Clarice stage, and does seem to feel remorse, his mental state is questionable. I think this is in the film’s favour; you can’t perpetrate that much death and destruction for personal reasons and still be sane by any standard definition. There are obvious contrasts to be made between Shelton and Heath Ledger’s Joker. The Joker’s cause is to create proto-psychopaths in ordinary citizens, of course, and so in many ways his sequence of murders is more elaborate and deliberately designed to provoke specific people in a certain order. Shelton’s cause isn’t chaos, it isn’t even really vengeance. Had he wanted vengeance, as he says in the film, he could have killed all those people at any time in the ten years in between the prologue and the rest of the film. No, his mission is to show the world that the US justice system is flawed; that once justice is divorced from the accountability of persons for their actions, there can be no true justice.
I can’t fault any of the performances. Of course my favourite actor in this was Butler, who portrayed a character of enormous complexity. Foxx also did well, and his character went through metamorphosis as well (as all good characters do), though it isn’t clear how much his character took in the ‘lesson’ that Shelton was trying to teach. His character was also quite unlikeable; he cut a deal with a rapist and murderer, he seems largely disinterested in his child, and greets all but a few of the ensuing deaths with at most indignation that he is being challenged. This seems to be a problem with the writing; even in morally ambiguous cases, the good guys and the bad guys can’t be that indistinguishable and still fulfil their roles. Perhaps Nick Rice wasn’t meant to be the good guy, just the foil to Shelton. I hesitate to label ‘protagonist’ and ‘antagonist’ because it’s an open question as to whom the film was about.
This film has received a lot of bad reviews on the basis of its implausibility, and the thoroughly detestable moral message it seems to portray. To the first, I can only say that there is a reason such films are implausible. Shelton shares something in common with Bryan Mills from Taken and every James Bond; they are all invincible warriors. In fact the moral goodness of their rampages of death and destruction get more ambiguous in reverse order. All the Bond villains have it coming, the bad guys in Taken may not ‘have it coming’, but the world’s definitely better off without them, but Shelton’s victims range from the absolutely guilty to the merely involved. The Brave One stands apart from these, because Jodie Foster’s Erica Bain wasn’t an invincible super-woman on a mission, she was a confused and grieving woman in extraordinary circumstances. Not that The Brave One was the height of realism, but there was something realistic about Erica. She didn’t snap into vengeance mode, she evolved very naturally, and didn’t have any special training that made her a Killing Machine. If anything, The Brave One is more reprehensible than any other revenge/vigilante film, precisely because her story was so common. She was neither a retired spy, a trained assassin nor a playboy billionaire. My point is that implausibility is preferable to realism in films that court the baser parts of ourselves. Any hot-blooded individual comes out of films like that feeling kickass, and righteous, because usually the cause of these vigilantes is something with which we can identify. What stops that empathy turning into emulation is that those film-vigilantes are supermen. Do not try this at home. The moral message criticism can’t simply be dismissed by saying â€œyes the film promotes violence as a solution to problems, but it’s unrealisticâ€ because you’re still left with the potential message that violence, while impractical on this scale, would still be a good tool in principle. I’m not going to get into whether or not violence can be used for good (or if it’s worth using), it’s a whole issue in itself. There are compelling arguments for and against the idea, most of them being historical examples of both. It is a valid criticism, though perhaps one shouldn’t take it all that seriously. I saw and liked the film, I identified with Shelton’s cause, but I would neither condone nor emulate what he did.
Definitely see this film. Even if it outrages you, or saddens you. If it outrages you because you think it was a poorly-made film, that’s a shame. If you think it was a good film but you were appalled by its apparent message, then I would argue that the film has done a good job. Cinema should be provocative, it should make us think about our views. Even if those views are ‘being able to shoot lightning from your fingertips makes the Dark Side worth all the evil’.