Monday, May 11, 2009

Script Review: Law-Abiding Citizen (Frank Darabont draft, previous draft by Kurt Wimmer)

After reading a rave review of this script over at Scriptshadow, I decided to take a look at this Kurt Wimmer/Frank Darabont-penned thriller to see whether I could get equally enthused. Note that this is not the shooting script - there has been a more recent David Ayer version as well.

Did I? Ah ah - that would be telling... Wait and see.

Spoilers, as always, will follow so read at your own risk.

Law-Abiding Citizen starts off with a man, Benson Clyde, calling the authorities after discovering his wife and child murdered at home. We swiftly meet our protagonist, Nick Price, one of the District Attorneys handling the case, and learn that the killers have been arrested but will probably win a trial because of a lack of admittable evidence. However, one of the killers wants to squeal on the other in exchange for immunity from prosecution. Clyde is adamant both killers have to go to trial, but the D.A.'s decide to go with the immunity option - like this they are at least certain of one conviction.

Ten years later, the convicted felon is to be executed, but his execution (by injected poison) goes 'wrong' when he's injected with another substance that causes him to die a hideous, extremely painful death. Price and his colleagues can't figure out how the 'sabotage' was performed, and decide to go and look for the other killer to interrogate him. The man escapes the police, however, with the help of an unknown man who turns out to be Benson Clyde. He subdues the killer and gives him the full Dexter treatment. Then he mails a DVD of the slaughter to Nick Price's 10-year old daughter, traumatizing her for life.

Analysis of the DVD leads the police to Clyde's farm, and he's duly arrested - but doesn't seem to care. In fact, he demands to be released - he's going to play the system like the system played him ten years ago. A game of wits begins between Price and Clyde, with Clyde first demanding luxury items in his cell in exchange for every part of his confession. But then the stakes increase when Clyde kills his cellmate and lands in solitary. His aim is not just to walk away free but taking vengeance on everyone - policeman, attorney, D.A., Mayor - who he deems responsible for the miscarriage of justice he suffered.

Price finds out that Clyde used to be a spy, specializing in inventing methods for killing people, and that he's a chess-playing genius who thinks twenty moves ahead of his opponent. And just how deadly an opponent he is becomes clear when he carries out every threat succesfully, even though he's behind bars. The death count rises like mad, and Price finds himself totally stumped - until one of his assistents finds the missing bit of information needed for Price to turn the tables on Clyde. But will it be enough to stop Clyde's final act of revenge - which targets the Mayor?


Two things immediately strike you when reading this script:

- none of the characters is described in any detail whatsoever

- there are a great amount of camera directions.

The latter makes sense since Frank Darabont apparently was slated to direct the film (no longer the case). The former is obviously an attempt at keeping all casting options open for the film : Nick Price, our hero, could literally be played by any leading man, from Hugh Jackman to Denzel Washington (and even Michael Douglas could probably still pull him off). At the moment, Jamie Foxx is attached to the film to play Nick Price, and Gerald Butler will play Benson Clyde.
I must say, though, that this 'anonymous' handling of the characters somehow lessens the identification with them, especially in the first twenty or thirty pages of the script.

No Shane Black-isms here - just effective, atmospheric stage directions. The feeling of dread and paranoia, evoked by the plot, is nicely reinforced by the tone of the writing.


This script has a very traditional three-act structure, with very clear act breaks and an effective midpoint (Clyde kills his cellmate) which signals a new, deadlier stage of the game between the main characters.
What's interesting about the second act is that it basically starts with a high point (the arrest of Benson Clyde) and then relentlessly goes from bad to worse for the good guys. There's not a single moment where they manage to turn the tide or get ahead of the villain. Even after they've been told about him and his abilities by another spy, they're still unable to use this information to their advantage.

This script is also totally pushed along by the antagonist. Nick Price is a totally reactive protagonist because all he can do is react to the moves made by his opponent. Only in the late third act does he finally take the initiative and actively tries to outsmart Clyde.


You will have noticed I only mentioned two names in the synopsis of the plot. There's a good reason for that. The only two characters in the script with any resonance are Nick Price and (especially) Benson Clyde. All others (wives, daughters, policemen, assistant D.A.'s, criminals, you name it) are quite bland. Don't get me wrong, their dialogue is all right, the parts are solid, but they are unmemorable. There is only one character with a specific characteristic (bad eyesight), all others are well-written clich├ęs.

Nick Price isn't that fantastic either, but that's part of the suspense: he's a good guy, pretty smart, tenacious, but in no way extraordinary. And he's facing an extraordinary opponent. So the stakes are very high and the odds are very much against him. It's a role a star can make his own, by imbuing it with his own charisma - but as a lead character, he's pretty uninteresting.

Of course Benson Clyde makes up for this. We first see him as a distraught victim, begging for justice - but when he returns ten years later, he's superhumanly intelligent, utterly ruthless, sadistic, invincible - and yet there are a few key moments in the script where he reveals his human side during his confrontations with Price. He has pretentions of Hannibal Lecterism but unlike Lecter he still has a (wounded) heart. And though we detest him for the crimes he commits and the innocents he targets, we continue to feel his pain almost all the way through the script.

Some of the most powerful character scenes in the script are the conversations between Price and Benson. But at the same time, I remained disappointed - I was hoping for more. A deeper philosophical discussion, a more layered insight into Clyde's character, a more interesting plan (by which I mean his goal, not the way he intends to achieve it)... Even a stronger tie between the two men. What's on the page is very good, but it's just missing a little something to make it magical.

Of course, the problem is that Clyde is so damn incredible, the story becomes very hard to swallow. It's all 'just' possible, there's no magic or mutant powers (though in the beginning I wasn't sure whether this was going to turn into a horror movie), but it's very very very unlikely that any of the events engineered by Clyde could come to pass. And the way the clue is found which turns the tables on him is probably too easy - someone who thinks as far ahead as Clyde should definitely have had a back-up plan to bury that information.


This version of Law-Abiding Citizen has a number of strong points: an impressive, all-powerful villain, some great set-pieces (the murder of the assistant D.A.'s is a real 'Oh, shit!'-moment, for instance), and the general feeling of dread and doom is realized very well. On the minus side, the plot is extremely far-fetched and there are serious plot holes at times (if there had been guards or cameras to watch Clyde in solitary, he could never have pulled off the stunts he did - so why wasn't he kept under surveillance 24/7? Especially once he started carrying out his threats?). And the secondary characters are too bland to make much of an impression.
If one can keep suspending one's disbelief, this is an enjoyable thriller - but it's definitely flawed. Still, you can learn a lot from studying how the big set-pieces are written and constructed, for in these sequences the script absolutely achieves the goals it aims for.

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