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Clyde Shelton (Gerard Butler) is a talented engineer and family man whose life is ruined when two thugs break into his house, which results in the death of his wife and child in front of his very eyes.
When the thug who commits the murders gets off with what amounts to a slap on the wrist by testifying against his less guilty accomplice (who gets put to death), Shelton initiates an increasingly elaborate plot to destroy the justice system.
The prosecutor who made the agreement with the thug is the main target of Shelton, so he has to find a way to stop him before it is too late.
- Asshole Victim: No one feels sorry for Darby when Shelton kills him.
- The Judge kinda counts, but they're nowhere near as bad as Darby.
- Pretty much the whole plot of the movie.
- Clyde himself could easily be construed as this.
- The Judge kinda counts, but they're nowhere near as bad as Darby.
- Anyone Can Die: About half the cast are dead by the ending, including Shelton.
- Anti-Hero: Type III: Nick doesn't care nearly as much about justice as his conviction rate. His flaws and mistakes may have created the villain - still, he tries to protect the innocent as good as he can.
- Badass Boast: "I'm gonna pull the whole thing down. I'm gonna bring the whole fuckin' diseased, corrupt temple down on your head. It's gonna be biblical."
- Earlier, "And if we don't?" "Then I kill everyone."
- Batman Gambit: Very successful one. It still fails in the end.
- Beware the Nice Ones: Clyde.
- Black and Gray Morality: Let's see. He's a Well-Intentioned Extremist, willing to kill anyone to make his rather simplistic political statements. They're the forces of justice, who start out incompetent and unable to put away the bad guys, and wind up violating civil rights at the drop of a hat and staging vigilante executions. Who're we supposed to cheer for?
- Blatant Lies: Despite the Title Drop by Clyde, the only citizens never shown violating the law are the somewhat minor characters who get killed for making a crappy bargain that Clyde understandably feels is a mockery of justice.
- Crazy Prepared: Clyde Shelton
- Crusading Widower: Clyde.
- The Engineer: Clyde himself obviously, and may I say an extraordinarily magnificent one at that.
- Estrogen Brigade Bait: Gerard Butler.
- Every Car Is a Pinto: Averted, even after taking several seconds of heavy machine gun fire, a van fails to explode. At least until it's hit with a rocket.
- Exact Words: Clyde, to Darby: "I want to keep you out of prison." He didn't say what he wanted to do to him instead.
- Forced to Watch: Darby to Shelton, although he probably wasn't intending it.
- Shelton actually ends up to doing this to Darby with himself.
- Famous Last Words: Often.
- Gambit Roulette: Clyde is at times just impossibly good at guessing exactly what everyone is going to do.
- Genre Deconstruction:
- Whether intentionally or not, It's basically a movie about a Super Villain who suffered great personal tragedy and is now trying to bring down the justice system that failed him. There's no superheroes, no setpieces, and his plan ultimately fails thanks to Nick figuring the last bombs location out.
- Alternatively, it's a deconstruction of revenge thrillers. Instead of revelling in the Vigilante Man pursuing his own brand of justice, once he quickly succeeds in Jumping Off the Slippery Slope we find ourselves rooting for the people within the system trying to put a stop to his out-of-control Roaring Rampage of Revenge.
- Gory Discretion Shot: the camera cuts away as Clyde begins his work on Darby, at least, in the theatrical version. The Director's Cut doesn't cut away...
- Groin Attack: Offscreen, but...
Clyde: (holding up a nasty-looking implement) This is for your penis, but we'll get to that later.
- He Who Fights Monsters: Clyde.
- Hoist by His Own Petard: Clyde is warned not to remotely activate his last bomb. He does so anyway, only to realize it was moved close enough to kill him.
- Hollywood Law: Ames must have had one bad defence attorney if he's put to death purely on the say-so of his partner, on the question of which one of them was a child rapist-murderer, a partner who is implied to have a much longer and nastier criminal record to boot. Apparently he never thought to call the husband as a witness either. And the prosecution are the only ones who even remotely care about his opinion as well, and still dismiss it.
- Hypocritical Humor: Nick keeps leaving his cell phone on while in court with a certain judge. While in a meeting with her later, her cell rings, and he calls her on it. Turns out there's a bomb in the phone.
- Idiot Ball: Clyde's non-confession would have been harder to pull off if Nick had announced something along the lines of "For the record, he just nodded his head".
- Improvised Weapon User: Clyde shivs his cellmate with the bone from a T-bone steak
- Instant Sedation: Instant paralysis, but close enough.
- Ironic Echo: Clyde deliberately repeats Darby's catch phrase just before dismembering him alive.
- It's Personal: Once Nick's understudy is killed, Nick is ready to go to war to take Clyde down.
- Jerkass: Nick Rice starts out as this.
- Joker Immunity: A major point of the movie - the legal system is tied up in tons of red tape and thus no matter what they do they can't get rid of Shelton or even move him somewhere secure, so he is continually able to commit murders with relative impunity.
- Karmic Death: Darby gets dismembered alive by Shelton, who recites the same line that Darby did before he committed the murders.
- One judge scolds Nick repeatedly for not turning off his cell phone. She was killed by a bomb in her cell phone, which she hypocritically answered during a meeting with Nick.
- Laser-Guided Karma: Less than 10 seconds after displaying flagrant contempt for duty, the rules and even the Constitution itself a bomb goes off directly in the judge's ear.
- Shelton himself gets a dose of this, as his termination of the understudy in the car bomb spree leads directly to the understudy's boyfriend risking his job to give Nick vital information, and Nick being willing to rig Clyde's super-napalm bomb to the underside of the prison cot.
- Ironically, this contempt for the Constitutional rights of the accused, putting stopping them ahead of the rules, is similar to what Clyde appeared to be trying to encourage.
- The Lost Lenore: Clyde's wife, who is raped and stabbed to death, possibly not in that order, for whose killer Clyde plots a particularly Karmic Death. For an added bonus his child is murdered too.
- The Man Behind the Man: Who's Clyde's partner? Turns out it's Clyde.
- Might as Well Not Be in Prison At All: Clyde still commits murders, even in jail. Turns out getting sent to solitary confinement was part of his plan, since part of the preparations he made before getting arrested included digging a secret tunnel accessible from there.
- Oh Crap: Clyde's reaction to the revelation that the bomb had been moved to his cell.
- Averted seconds later, when he resigns himself to his fate, and utterly keeps his calm even with super napalm filling his cell.
- Ooh, Me Accent's Slipping: A couple times, Gerard Butler falls into a little of his native Scottish.
Clyde: [to Darby] You know why I'll never see my wife and daughter again?
- Product Placement: Nick's understudy uses a Mac (apparently running Windows), and in one scene the staff prominently rolls in large amounts of Pepsi and Dunkin' Donuts.
- Red Herring: Nick's understudy is a minor one - around the time Clyde starts amping up his attacks she starts questioning Nick about whether or not he's in the right, and around the time they start questioning whether he has an accomplice inside their system we learn more about her mysterious boyfriend who never shows his face and "isn't ready" to meet Nick - the audience is briefly led to believe that she may be working with Shelton, and the boyfriend stuff was just another trick of his. When she dies, that part of the audience who believed that may even think Shelton pulled a You Have Outlived Your Usefulness on her. By the end of the movie, however, her boyfriend does appear, over the internet to give crucial information.
- Roger Ebert also thought this about Colm Meaney's character.
- Rube Goldberg Hates Your Guts: The movie runs on this trope.
- Secret Underground Passage
- Shout-Out: Clyde's "biblical" threat to "pull this... temple down on all your heads" is a reference to Samson. Who killed himself in the process, incidentally.
- Spanner in the Works: Clyde kills Nick's staff, including his blonde understudy. Said blonde's boyfriend happened to have access to critical information that he wasn't willing to risk his job over...until his girlfriend was killed.
- Strawman Political: Although it shows up the dark side of vigilantism, the movie strongly suggests that the justice system is incapable of dealing with violent criminals, and "proves" this with some questionable logic;
- "Plea bargains are bad, because here are some arbitrarily bad plea bargains for no adequately explained reason."
- "The exclusionary rule is bad, because it got DNA evidence deemed inadmissible when there was no explanation as to what was illegal about how it was obtained."
- "The presumption of innocence is bad, because this guy who we, the audience, know committed a crime is being granted bail before his trial."
- Strike Me Down with All of Your Hatred: Potentially Clyde's motive (well, it's either that or he's genuinely an Omnicidal Maniac). Particularly suggested by this exchange;
Clyde: Our final offer? Is that what this is?
- Time Skip: after the sentencing of Darby, cue to 10 years later.
- Title Drop: Clyde in court, arguing to be granted bail.
"Your honor, I'm a law-abiding citizen, just a regular guy, and I am not a flight risk..."
- To the Pain: Clyde goes into great detail about everything he is doing and is about to do to Darby.
- Trailers Always Spoil: Clyde's past as a government weapon designer and "executive action" mastermind isn't revealed for over half the movie. The reveal itself is in the trailer, along with the Judge's execution, the mass car bombing, the drone attack in the cemetery and Clyde's napalm-induced end.
- Villain Protagonist: Clyde is briefly alluded to be this in the trailer and the movie when the camera follows him up to the murder of Darby. The movie's actual protagonist turns out to be Anti-Hero Nick.
- Villains Never Lie: Clyde usually upholds his end of bargains (as long as the other side complies down to the minute), gives hints as to what he's going to do, and confesses when he's ready to. It's averted when he tells the judge he's a law-abiding citizen, though. He also falsely tells Darby that he tased a male cop.
- Well-Intentioned Extremist: On one hand, Clyde Shelton is sympathetic; he watched his wife and daughter get brutally murdered before his eyes, then watched the thug who did it get off with a slap on the wrist. On the other hand, that doesn't give him an excuse to try and destroy the justice system.
- What Could Have Been: Originally Gerard Butler was supposed to be Nick while Jamie Foxx was signed to play Clyde. At the last minute, though, Gerard thought it would be interesting to play Clyde, and asked Jamie if he minded switching roles. Jamie loved Gerard's performance in 300, and thought that as a viewer he would love seeing Gerard "beating people and blowing stuff up". Butler said that having Foxx and himself switch roles would be "awesome".
- What the Hell, Hero?: The entire point of the movie. Clyde thinks he's doing this to the entire Justice system, and Nick keeps calling him out on it.
- "Fuck [my] Civil Rights." Everyone in the courtroom is looking at Clyde like he's crazy.
- Woobie, Destroyer of Worlds: Clyde eventually tries to destroy the entire justice department of Philadelphia, because they failed to properly punish the slayers of his family.
- Word Salad Title: The dash is missing from "Law-Abiding" to show that it's the law abiding the citizen, not the other way around.