This is not just a bad film; it is a despicable one. The slim but highly profitable torture porn genre has now begun to permeate major studio films directed at a general audience and the result is this dim-witted thriller that purports to have some legitimacy beyond serving as an excuse for full-on butchery. It does not. This is the “Saw”-ification of mainstream films.
Clyde (Gerard Butler of “300” and “Phantom of the Opera”) is quickly and very briefly established as a loving husband and father and then five minutes into the film two intruders come into the house, knock him out, and rape and murder his wife and little girl. Later, a slick prosecutor named Nick (Jamie Foxx) makes a deal that gives the worst of the two offenders a reduced sentence while his partner is sentenced to death. The execution goes wrong and the death is agonizingly painful. And the other offender, released from prison, is captured and subjected to excruciating torture (described in excruciating detail) before he, too, is killed. It turns out that Clyde has not just a motive for revenge; as a former highly trained government operative, he has the means. And he is just beginning.
It is supposed to be an intriguing cat-and-mouse game, but the fun of those stories is putting together the pieces of the puzzle and seeing the bad guy out-smarted. But there is nothing smart here, much less out-smart. The screenplay is so lazy that it cannot even decide who Nick works for, the District Attorney (local), the Justice Department (federal), or both. He also seems to be moonlighting as a detective, leaving the courtroom behind as he races into dark buildings without calling for any back-up. Because Clyde’s character has suffered so profoundly and the bad guys are so over-the-top despicable, we are supposed to find some satisfaction in their hideously painful deaths. But we’re supposed to be on Nick’s side, too. He may be a little too slick, but when the body count starts to pile up and Clyde threatens to kill “everyone,” we’re back on the side of law enforcement, previously portrayed as ineffectual and pragmatic to the point of moral compromise.
Revenge is such a reliable plot engine that it is hard to mess it up. Think of the purity of the first “Kill Bill.” But in this film, the details of the torture as entertainment, the sheer pointless excess of the carnage in the context of what purports to be a drama, and then the literal over-the-top ending that once again undercuts everything we have been asked to believe is more than exploitative; it is depraved. Viola Davis adds some class and dignity to the film as the frustrated mayor, like a visitor from another film, maybe another world. But then we are back to the phony sanctimoniousness of this film, with its final insults the idea that even upholders of the law are entitled to cause massive destruction and put lives at risk for payback and that all of this carnage is justified as a reminder to be a better daddy.