In a home invasion, Clarence Darby kills the wife and daughter of Clyde Shelton. Prosecutor Nick Rice is unable to securely convict Darby. Unwilling to take a chance on lowering his high conviction rate, he makes a deal with Darby, who pleads guilty to a lesser charge and receives a reduced sentence for testifying against his accomplice, Rupert Ames. Ames is convicted and sentenced to death. Darby is released after a few years. Clyde feels betrayed by Rice's actions and the justice system.
Ten years later, Ames is executed. Unknown to the prosecutors and witnesses, the drug usually used has been replaced with an anticonvulsant, causing Ames to die painfully. Evidence implicates Darby. An anonymous caller alerts Darby as the police draw near and directs him to a remote location. Clyde, disguised as a police officer, reveals himself as the caller and paralyzes Darby with poison. He straps Darby to a table and videorecords dismembering him. When Darby's remains are found, evidence ties his death to Clyde. Clyde willingly surrenders and goes to prison.
After Rice learns his wife and daughter were sent the dismemberment video and were traumatized by it, he initially refuses a plea bargain with Clyde. District Attorney Jonas Cantrell orders Rice to make a deal. Clyde demands a new bed in his cell in exchange for a "Confession". In court, Clyde represents himself and successfully argues he should be granted bail, then berates the judge for accepting the "bullshit" legal precedents he cited and for being too eager to let madmen and murderers back on the street. The judge jails Clyde for contempt of court.
Clyde demands a steak lunch and a music player be delivered to his cell by a specific time, in return for telling where to find Darby's lawyer, who was reported missing earlier. Rice agrees, though the lunch is delayed by a few minutes by the warden's security measures. Once he has his meal, Clyde provides a set of coordinates, where Rice and the others find Darby's lawyer, buried alive but suffocated by time-mechanized materials while Clyde's dinner was delayed. As the loud music plays in Clyde's cell, he proceeds to kill his cellmate with the bone of his steak, forcing the warden to secure him in solitary confinement.
Cantrell arranges a meeting with a CIA contact and brings Rice. They learn that Clyde previously worked with the agency, creating imaginative and complex assassination devices. Furthermore, they are warned that Clyde can kill anyone he wishes. During a meeting with Rice and Cantrell, the judge dies when her cell phone explodes after it is answered. Clyde then demands that all charges against him be completely removed at a specific day and time or he will "kill everyone". Rice was reluctant to comply and made his assistants take precautionary measures instead. However, when Clyde's deadline has passed, a number of Rice's assistants die from car bombs. As Rice and Cantrell leave the funeral of one of Rice's assistants, a weaponized bomb disposal robot kills Cantrell. Rice meets Clyde again and punches him repeatedly while reprimanding him for his senseless attempt for vengeance. Clyde stands his ground and tells Rice that he is just beginning to destroy the current system and those who believe in it. The mayor puts the city under lockdown and promotes Rice to acting District Attorney.
Rice attempts to deduce the possibility of an accomplice who may have aided in Clyde's pre-meditated murders. He soon learns that Clyde owns an auto garage near the prison and manages to break-in. A tunnel from the garage leads to a cache of guns, disguises, and other equipment below the solitary confinement cells, and secret entrances to each cell. He and Police Detective Dunnigan realize that Clyde wanted to be in solitary confinement all along; this allows him to easily leave the prison without detection, carry out his pre-meditated murders while misleading the cops for the possibility of accomplices. Evidence in the tunnel points Rice to Clyde's next target, city hall, where the mayor is holding an emergency meeting. Rice and his men cannot find Clyde but discover evidence pointing to a cell-phone-activated suitcase bomb in the room directly below the meeting.
Clyde returns to his garage after planting the city hall bomb, then returns to his cell. He is surprised to find Rice waiting for him. Rice berates Clyde for taking his revenge so far because of the pain he suffered. Clyde suggests another deal, but Rice refuses, saying he no longer makes deals with murderers, which he thanks Clyde for teaching him. Rice then gives him one final warning to not do anything he will regret, pointing out to Clyde's phone in hand which is ready to be dialed to activate the city hall bomb. Rice and Dunnigan secure Clyde in the cell. Despite being pleased, Rice finally learned his lesson when Clyde dials the cell phone to activate the bomb. Rice and Dunnigan run away. Clyde realizes too late that Rice has moved the bomb to his cell, which is now sealed. Clyde looks upon his daughter's bracelet with a sense of sadness, accepting his fate as the bomb explodes.
The epilogue shows Rice watching his daughter in a musical performance on stage, something he had previously been unable to find time for.
Frank Darabont was originally attached as director, but left the project in early October 2008 over script disagreements. According to rumor, his relationship with the film's production company "ended ugly."
In a reversal of their roles in the final version, Gerard Butler was initially signed on to play the prosecuting attorney, while Jamie Foxx was the criminal mastermind operating from inside prison.
Filming began in August 2008 and took place in and around Philadelphia. Filming locations included Philadelphia's City Hall and the now closed Holmesburg Prison. Holmesburg's "Thunderdome command center" is quite evident in the movie.
The film was edited after being threatened with an NC-17 rating for violence, with the full version released unrated on Blu-ray.
The score to Law Abiding Citizen was composed by Brian Tyler, who recorded his score with a 52-piece ensemble of the Hollywood Studio Symphony at the Sony Scoring Stage with help from Kieron Charlesworth. The film also uses "Eminence Front" by The Who and "Engine No. 9" by Deftones on Clyde's iPod while he is eating his steak in his cell. While Clyde calls Darby to help him 'escape' the police after Ames' execution, "Bloodline" by Slayer is Darby's ringer. The tune at the end for closing credits is "Sin's A Good Man's Brother" by Grand Funk Railroad.
The film was released theatrically on October 16, 2009. The first theatrical trailer was released on August 14, 2009 and was attached to District 9.
The premiere was held on November 15, 2009 at the Cineworld complex in Glasgow - hometown of Gerard Butler. Many British tabloids have labeled this event as the "Homecoming Premiere", in reference to the Homecoming Scotland 2009 celebrations.
The film took second place in its opening weekend, with $21,039,502, behind Where the Wild Things Are. It went on to gross $126.6 million total worldwide.
Law Abiding Citizen received negative reviews from critics. Critics on review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes gave it a 25% score, with an average rating of 4.3/10 based on 155 reviews. The site's critical consensus states that "Unnecessarily violent and unflinchingly absurd, Law Abiding Citizen is plagued by subpar acting and a story that defies reason". In contrast, users on the site gave the film an average score of 75%.
In his review for the Chicago Sun Times, Roger Ebert said, "Law Abiding Citizen is the kind of movie you will like more at the time than in retrospect." He then went on to say, "Still, there's something to be said for a movie you like well enough at the time." Ebert rated the film 3 out of 4 stars.