Biding his time

After directing 2003's The Italian Job and 2005's Be Cool - two films with more than their share of physical and creative demands - F. Gary Gray had established himself among the handful of former music video directors who graduated to taking the helm of big-budget projects. But then he seemed to vanish, prompting some to wonder about his professional future.

Fuelling that concern was the lukewarm reception audiences and critics gave Be Cool, the Get Shorty sequel that earned $US56 million at the box office, despite an A-list cast including John Travolta, Vince Vaughn and Danny DeVito.

It turned out that Gray, one of the few black directors hired to make mainstream studio films, made a move that might seem unimaginable to most Hollywood players: He took himself out of the game for nearly four years.

"I had to take a break," he said. "I was frankly exhausted, and I had to stop and regroup. I had a chance to look at life."

Travelling to several spots, including Egypt and Paris, and doing "spiritual soul-searching" recharged him.

Now Gray (40) seems to have returned with a vengeance with Law Abiding Citizen, a violently provocative story about, well, vengeance.

The Overture Films release could be described as Cape Fear meets Death Wish.

The drama stars Gerard Butler (300) as Clyde Shelton, a man whose life is shattered after he witnesses the brutal murder of his family.

An arrogant Philadelphia prosecutor (Jamie Foxx) makes a deal that allows one of the killers to receive a reduced sentence.

Biding his time for 10 years, an enraged Shelton launches a relentless assault not only against his attackers but against the legal system that denied him justice.

Gray describes it as his most accomplished film, in what he acknowledges is an uneven resume that includes hits such as The Italian Job and misses such as the Vin Diesel vehicle A Man Apart.

"I've never delivered a film before that I felt matched my potential," he said recently, while relaxing in the lounge of a Beverly Hills hotel.

"I've always looked at my first few films as being like boot camp. With this film, people will really get a chance to see the growth."

With Law Abiding Citizen, Gray was determined to bring an element of moral relativity to the proceedings.

He was also compelled by the vigilante theme: Although audiences may initially cheer Shelton's violent campaign, its escalating brutality becomes more and more troubling.

"That's what I really loved about it - the complexity of the story and the characters," Gray said.

"This could have easily fit into the revenge-movie category, but those types of films have been done very well, and I didn't want to go down that path. There's a lot of complexity in bringing humanity to Gerard's character that does heinous things."

Butler, also a producer of the film, was taken with Gray's intensity.

"Before we started, he sat both Jamie and I down individually and asked, `What do you want to get out of this experience? What do you want this movie to do?'," he said.

"I don't remember anyone else being that direct. I was very impressed."

Many scenes display Gray's command of pacing as he shifts audience sympathies.

For example, a quiet cello recital is intercut with a gruesome execution inside a gas chamber.

And although Foxx's character is theoretically the hero and protagonist, viewers will more likely side with Butler - at least for much of the film.

The slickness and design of the $50 million production, shot in Philadelphia, is a long way from the music videos that launched Gray's career.

He made his mark with acclaimed videos for TLC (the award-winning Waterfalls), OutKast, Dr. Dre, Babyface, Stevie Wonder and Ice Cube.

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