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Law Abiding Citizen (2009) by Kurt Wimmer and Frank Darabont

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.

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Friday (1995)

In the 1989 companion book for Spike Lee’s breakthrough film, Do the Right Thing (which includes the original screenplay, production diary, and notes on the film), Lee expresses his desire to make a film that tackled racism while showing a lower-class African-American neighborhood in a positive light, implying (through fancy clothes and apparent lack of employment) that some of the characters are involved in the drug trade but not getting into the drug-related, Black-on-Black violence within the community (he saved that for Clockers). He wanted to make a slice-of-life film that unexpectedly erupted into the Italians-versus-Blacks violence that plagued New York at the time of the film’s production. True to his word, there are hints of the neighborhood’s dark edges (the errant boarded-up brownstone, Ossie Davis’s lovelorn wino, Giancarlo Esposito’s coveted Air Jordans, and Bill Nunn’s hulking figure stomping around the neighborhood with an enormous ghetto blaster, just daring someone to mess with him), but the film downplays many of the neighborhood’s endemic problems in order to focus on a deeper problem.

Friday serves as the polar opposite, a “laugh that I would not cry” take on urban decay that plays like a stoner-buddy comedy but doesn’t shy away from gangsters, drug dealers, gun violence, and the strange mixture of community spirit and abject terror that comes from living in a place like South Central, Los Angeles (or Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn). Played mostly for laughs, the film focuses on Craig Jones (Ice Cube) and Smokey (Chris Tucker), who while away most of a Friday on Craig’s front porch. Yesterday, Craig managed to get fired on his day off, so he starts Friday in a bad frame of mind. His father (John Witherspoon) suggests Craig join him in the dog-catching trade. When Craig balks that he doesn’t like dogs, his father considers that a virtue of the job—you can abuse and torture them in the process of catching them. (Late in the film, Mr. Jones watches 1993’s Man’s Best Friend and cheers for the unlikely outcome of a postman taking down the genetically mutated psycho-dog.)

Craig’s best friend, Smokey, is a lazy pot dealer who encourages Craig’s worst traits and smokes more product than he sells. His supplier, Big Worm (Faizon Love), gives him until midnight to get the $200 he owes for a batch of indo he was supposed to sell. Smokey enlists Craig’s help in getting the money; when Craig balks, Smokey tells Big Worm that he and Craig are in it together. Left with no other choice, Craig and Smokey alternate between scheming to get the money and sitting on the porch, watching the active neighborhood and trying not to think about their fate.

Much of the comedy comes from the interaction between straight-man Craig and clownish sidekick Smokey, whose obsession with getting high and passing along neighborhood lore effectively distracts Craig from his disastrous life. The laughs that don’t come from these two are provided by a colorful supporting cast that includes Bernie Mac, Tony Cox, Regina King, co-writer DJ Pooh, and Anthony Johnson. Aside from the generally off-screen menace of Big Worm, Craig’s major conflict comes from Deebo (Tiny “Zeus” Lister Jr.), a hulking terror who rides around on a stolen bicycle and casually robs people in the neighborhood. Craig and Smokey hiding their wallets and gold chains whenever he comes around becomes a running gag. When Deebo forces Smokey to help him rob a house, Smokey finds the $200 he needs—but Deebo snatches it, because that’s the kind of guy he is.

The amazing thing about Friday is that it manages to make Deebo, who uses only his size and demeanor to get what he wants, a bigger threat than Big Worm’s drive-by shooting (which is played mostly for laughs). The film’s central conflict is more about Craig learning to stand up for himself and be a man—without the aid of the Glock he hides in his underwear drawer—instead of letting people like Deebo roll over him constantly. The film’s third act gets quite dark and thematically echoes Cube’s breakthrough film, Boyz N the Hood, in giving Craig a difficult choice that may have dire consequences on Saturday, but maybe he can go to sleep on Friday feeling good about himself.

Inferior sequels have tainted Friday‘s legacy, so it’s easy to forget that it’s a solid comedy that’s about more than getting easy laughs (though it doesn’t shy away from those). That’s a shame, because it provides an entertaining, thoughtful glimpse into a world that, in cinema, generally serves as a backdrop for histrionic crime dramas.

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Casualties of War (1989)

What could possibly make the police action in Vietnam more unpalatable? How about the kidnap, repeated rape, and eventual murder of an innocent Vietnamese girl? Inspired by “the incident on hill 192,” Brian De Palma’s great film Casualties of War dramatizes one such stomach-churning story.

PFC Erikkson (Michael J. Fox) is a bright-eyed rookie under the command of Sergeant Meserve (Sean Penn), a quietly deranged Captain Queeg type who seems all well and good until he discovers his squad can’t go into town to take advantage of the abundant prostitutes because it’s the V.C.’s turn. Enraged, Meserve gathers the squad (which includes well-known faces like John C. Reilly and John Leguizamo in early roles) and announces his plans to kidnap a villager girl to use as their life-sized sex doll. This makes Erikkson extremely uncomfortable, especially when he realizes Hatcher (Reilly) and Clark (Don Harvey) are not just willing to obey Meserve’s directive—they’re sort of excited by it.

Diaz (Leguizamo) confesses his fears about this plan to Erikkson, and they agree to back each other, but when push comes to shove, he would rather be accepted by the group than be an outcast. Erikkson stands up for what’s right and makes the bold decision not to rape the girl when it’s not his “turn.” De Palma builds his legendary suspense out of Erikkson’s isolation from this group. When they’re forced to work together, it’s hard to tell if Erikkson can trust the others in the squad. In an especially harrowing sequence, he gets time alone with the girl and immediately frees her. Like a confused puppy, she keeps running back to him instead of fleeing—and, of course, Clark catches him. Unwilling to let her out of his sight, Clark drags her to a combat zone. However, she’s taken ill and can’t stop coughing. Afraid she’ll let the V.C. get the drop on them, Meserve orders Diaz to slit her throat.

When they get back to base camp, Erikkson tells everyone he possibly can about what happened, but nobody cares. Nobody wants to create an international incident, and nobody wants to take responsibility for Meserve’s increasing instability. The best Erikkson can get is a transfer to a different company. The second half of the film chronicles Erikkson’s dogged search for justice amid apathetic officers and a squad that literally wants him dead. Although it gets a tad too hung up on the procedural aspects of the story (especially in the third act), the film manages to remain surprising and suspenseful even in its quietest moments.

Although the film capitalizes on Fox’s youthful appearance and nice-guy persona, Fox doesn’t play Erikkson as a Dudley Do-Right type. He’s a foul-mouthed, pot-smoking, moderately inept soldier. It just happens that he’s thrown into the sort of situation where there’s an obvious distinction between right and wrong, and Erikkson has the guts to stand up for the right side, no matter the consequences. You don’t have to be Mother Teresa to know kidnapping, rape, and murder are wrong.

Whereas Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter attempt to portray the psychological tolls of war using their characters and situations to imply a broader context, De Palma attempts to portray those same tolls while sticking closely to the characters as actual people. They don’t exist as metaphoric constructs designed to symbolize personality archetypes. It’s not strictly an anti-war film, because unlike the other two films mentioned, it makes no effort to imply that war made Meserve and Clark what they are. The point, it seems, is that bad apples exist everywhere. The chaos of war just gives them an excuse to do the things they can’t get away with in times of peace. De Palma targets a certain personality type and insinuates that the military infrastructure does allow for these bad apples to remain hidden or ignored, but only because of badder apples that have risen through the ranks. When Erikkson confronts the relentlessly unpleasant Captain Hill (Dale Dye), he’s told to transfer to another company. When Erikkson refuses to give up, the military court metes out appropriate punishments. It all comes back to a few bad people, not a big bad military or a devastating war.

Great though they may be, a strong undercurrent of hyperbole runs through most Vietnam movies. Not this one. Here, we have characters who feel like real people. Nothing’s black-and-white, and the war (for once) is just a setting, not a playground for heady symbolism rooted more in artful fantasy than grim reality. Casualties of War may not be realistic, either, but its characters feel human-sized, full of idiosyncrasies and contradictions. It’s a refreshing change of pace.

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The Rocketeer (1991)

For those of you too young to remember the halcyon days of the summer of ’91, let me enlighten you: It mostly involved Disney trying to shove The Rocketeer down the throats of an unprepared nation. As a moon-eyed, imaginative nine-year-old, I watched slack-jawed as Pizza Hut commercials loudly instructed me to “Blast off with the Rocketeer, against Neville Sinclair, the enemy agent!” My reaction was as follows: “Who? What? YESSSS!” Like Batman in the summer of ’89, I begged my parents to get the Pizza Hut novelty collector’s cup shaped like the Rocketeer’s helmet, scrounged around for enough change to buy Rocketeer-themed candy and toys, rented the NES game from the local video store, and had June 21 marked on my calendar.

Then I saw the movie. Cough.

Almost 20 years later, it’s easy to see why The Rocketeer failed: Disney marketed it squarely at kids—adults need not apply—but it’s not a kids’ movie. Obviously, Disney wanted a franchise on par with Paramount’s Indiana Jones and Warner Brothers’ Batman, but those movies were not strictly for kids, either. They’re actually pretty demented, and I’m sort of amazed I saw them as young as I did. Neither Paramount nor Warner Brothers marketed the films exclusively to kids, however. That was Disney’s failing. At best, the most appealing things The Rocketeer offered to the nine-year-old me were the always-cool super-secrecy of the rocket pack, and my introduction to buxom Jennifer Connelly, dolled up to look like a ’30s starlet (I didn’t know what a ’30s starlet was back then, but gosh I wanted to find out!).

Here’s a list of things The Rocketeer revels in that non-cinephiles under the age of 30 will either not understand or not care about: film noir, ’30s serials, Golden Age Hollywood, Howard Hughes, J. Edgar Hoover and his G-men, aviation history, Errol Flynn, boarding houses, Al Capone, The Killers, Rondo Hatton, art deco, and zeppelins. As an adult with a moderate obsession with this period in history, I loved every second of it while fully understanding why, as a kid, I felt so let down and betrayed by the unending marketing assault. The film is a glorious paean to not just the ’30s, but the ’30s of cinema and comic-books—the gee-whiz sense that anything can happen. The film constructs a plot that entwines history and legend into one crazy, fantastical hodgepodge.

For a kid, the Rocketeer himself is a letdown. These other franchises follow larger-than-life heroes, getting them into tight scrapes and showing how they use cunning, ingenuity, and occasionally far-fetched gadgets to get out of trouble. The Rocketeer has one power—the ability to fly with a rocket backpack—that he barely uses. The screenplay by Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo is less interested in the Rocketeer as a superhero so much as the world he inhabits. As a kid, that sucked. As an adult, I’m incredibly grateful.

The story follows struggling pilot Cliff Secord (Bill Campbell), who desperately needs to win an upcoming aviation competition to keep his struggling business afloat. Together with his father figure/mechanic, Peevy (Alan Arkin), he designs a plane that’s sure to win—until a carload of Eddie Valentine’s (Paul Sorvino) gangsters accidentally shoot it down while evading a pair of FBI agents (Ed Lauter, James Handy). With no money to build a new plane, and no way to make the rent on their hangar without winning the nationals, Cliff and Peevy have to resort to an old clown/stunt act that impresses rubes but humiliates the two of them.

The plot thickens when Cliff realizes the reason for the FBI/gangster shootout: They stole a secret prototype rocket pack developed by master aviator Howard Hughes (Terry O’Quinn). Cliff finds the pack (hidden by the gangsters in the aftermath of the shootout) and discovers a surefire way to make money. The theft of the rocket pack is all over the newspaper and radio, so Peevy warns against using it so extravagantly. However, when a fellow pilot puts himself in danger in an attempt to save Cliff’s job, the only way for Cliff to save him is to don the rocket pack and fly up to his plane. Needless to say, the mysterious “Rocketeer” becomes an immediate sensation.

Cliff excitedly tells his girlfriend, Jenny (Connelly), a glorified extra in B-movies starring people like Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton), a hammy swashbuckler obviously modeled after Errol Flynn. Sinclair overhears Cliff telling Jenny about the rocket pack, and the plot continues to thicken. Apparently, it was he who hired Valentine’s goons to steal the rocket pack in the first place. Now that he knows who has it, Neville decides he must get close to Jenny, in the hopes that he can use her to get the rocket pack. Why he wants the rocket pack, I’ll leave a mystery, but here’s a hint: Some spurious accusations about Errol Flynn’s associations with certain political parties appeared in an unauthorized, largely speculative biography in the early ’80s, and the writers used this to inform Neville Sinclair.

Lest I forget, Sinclair has a henchman, Lothar (“Tiny” Ron Taylor), made up to look and sound eerily like Rondo Hatton, star of the “Creeper” films of the 1940s. He was one of the rare non-giants to suffer from a pituitary disorder called acromegaly, which caused his facial features to distort grotesquely, making him ideal to play thugs and misunderstood killers. Lothar, however, stands over seven feet tall in addition to suffering from acromegaly. He’s a fearsome menace whose characterization makes him an effective villain, although it eliminates the Hunchback of Notre Dame poignancy the “Creeper” films had.

The writers develop such a convoluted plot, they have to strain to keep numerous balls in the air. The FBI searches for the rocket pack on behalf of Hughes; Valentine and Lothar search for the rocket pack on behalf of Sinclair; Sinclair kidnaps Jenny in order to bring the Rocketeer out into the open; and Cliff tries to keep the rocket pack hidden, just until he can make enough money to build a new plane. All of these characters and subplots converge in unexpected ways designed to thrill. The film is incredibly effective, with a sense of whimsy and adventure that owes a great deal to Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones films and the fast-paced adventure films of the period it encapsulates, without ever seeming derivative. The locales, production design, and casting are impeccable.

The Rocketeer could have turned into a phenomenal franchise had Disney marketed it to the correct demographic—middle-aged cranks and cinephiles who would drag their disinterested kids (and possibly grandkids) to a rollicking adventure evocative of their youths. Instead, it’s relegated to a Syfy Sunday afternoon. That’s a shame. Anyone who loves old movies and/or arcane ’30s trivia needs to see this film.

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