When your first movie is as good as Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler, then a lot of people will be interested in your follow-up. And then when you also cast the likes of Denzel Washington in the title role of that said follow-up, there’s going to be even more interest. The question is whether a movie about a schlubby old-school defense lawyer questioning his ideals will be something even Denzel fans might appreciate.
Washington is Roman J Israel, Esq., a veteran defense lawyer who has remained in the shadows while his partner and mentor has gone to court to defend their non-wealthy clients. When that partner has a heart attack and ends up in a coma, unlikely to recover, Roman is forced to step up and do more, even as his partner’s former law student George Pierce (Colin Farrell), now a very powerful LA lawyer, is brought in to help Roman with their open cases—and close up Roman’s shop for good by the law practice into his own firm.
For years now, Roman has been putting together a single case to protect litigants from defense lawyers who’ll take deals that put their clients in prison while also merely cutting down the court’s docket. And while trying to find a new job, Roman encounters Carmen Ejogo’s Maya, a younger liberal activist who could use the know-how of someone like Roman, to continue the good fight. And yet, Roman still decides he decided to backtrack to Pierce and accept generous offer to retain him. To sell his soul.
Wearing glasses, a cheap mismatched suit and an unkempt afro, all while taking the bus to work and listening to his Walkman like an old school Baby Driver, Roman is a very different character for Washington. It’s never clear whether Roman is autistic or just doesn’t have decent people skills, because he has a Rain Man knowledge of law cases that makes him useful but unable to deal with people in any sort of social setting.
Either way, it’s a decent character piece for Washington to break away from that same cocksure role we’ve seen him play so many times before. Farrell also delivers a strong performance as a young hot-shot lawyer who doesn’t understand what Roman offers to make him so popular with clients.
Seeing this, Pierce starts assigning Roman the cases no one else wants including a young man involved in a grocery store shooting who knows the location of the real shooter. Roman sticks his nose too far into this case, causing great harm to his client but not before finding out where the shooter is and collecting the $100,000 reward in cash from a community leader. Having already compromised his ideals, Roman decides to change himself, buys snazzier clothes, goes on vacation to the beach and gets a nicer apartment.
It’s a fairly complex story where we watch Roman travel from one side of the law to the other while having to answer to Pierce, who questions everything Roman does. At first, you’re kind of impressed with the way Roman cleans himself up and sweetly invites Maya out to dinner, but it becomes clear that what he did was illegal and against his own ethics. So you can only half-root for him.
There is an aspect to Gilroy’s latest that veers into the territory of Tom Cruise’s The Firm, but it never feels as if Roman is in enough danger to consider this movie as a “thriller” per se.
It’s a shame we now live in a day and age when the motives and intentions of every filmmaker need to be questioned, and that’s especially true of Gilroy’s latest, which seems to be saying something about the criminal defense business. Or maybe Gilroy wanted to say something about how this African American lawyer with old-school values could teach the young ‘uns a thing or two. Who knows? It’s the type of well-written film that might have done better with a different director to help clarify Gilroy’s thought process and turn the movie into something more cohesive.
As good as Washington is at playing this role, it’s a shame Ejogo didn’t have more to do in the movie, because she’s proving to be quite a viable actor in terms of getting the most out of her male leads, and their few scenes together are great.
Regardless, Gilroy’s movie isn’t going to be for everyone, and it’s hard to tell whether Denzel’s biggest fans are going to be very interested in seeing him play such a different role. (Also, it’s a shame that Sony couldn’t come up with a better title for this movie than the perfectly fine original title of Inner City, which is still better.)
Roman J Israel, Esq is scheduled for release on Nov. 3.
Read and download the full Den of Geek Special Edition magazine here!