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Law and order – ‘Roman J. Israel, Esq.’

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Legal drama fails to match Washington’s outstanding performance

Full disclosure: I love Denzel Washington.

He is a consummate performer, one of the most talented actors of his generation. He’s got all manner of hardware – two Oscar wins (out of seven acting nominations), two competitive Golden Globe wins plus the Cecil B. DeMille Award and a Tony. He’s brilliant.

However, as brilliant as he is, his performances alone can’t always fully elevate a film. Such is the case with his latest outing “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” Denzel is exceptional in the title role, twisting his natural charisma in such a way as to both exploit and subvert his screen magnetism, but the narrative is just a bit lacking. The end result is a worthwhile turn from Washington in a movie that can’t quite match the pace he sets.

Roman J. Israel is an idealistic defense attorney who has been laboring behind the scenes of a two-person criminal defense law practice for decades. He handles all of the nuts-and-bolts analysis and research – aided by a nigh-eidetic memory with regards to the penal code – while his partner is the face of the franchise.

But when his partner succumbs to a heart attack, there’s little choice but to dissolve the firm; a hotshot attorney named George Pierce (Colin Ferrell, “The Beguiled”) is brought in to facilitate the dissolution. Israel – who has spent 30 years developing numerous idiosyncrasies and odd habits – is left to try and make his way in a world that he hasn’t really had to navigate in a long time.

His quest to recommit to the activism of his younger days leads him to a legal non-profit led by the idealistic Maya Alston (Carmen Ejogo, “It Comes at Night”), a volunteer lawyer who is drawn to Israel’s awkward passion and quirky mannerisms. However, there’s no room for him with this organization – or at least, no money for him – so he ultimately winds up working for Pierce.

As one might imagine, Israel’s journey from tiny Post-It-riddled offices to state-of-the-art computers and full face-to-face dockets proves difficult for him (and for those around him) to handle. And when he finds himself with an opportunity that could change his life for the better, but at the cost of his principles, he must decide just what are his beliefs really worth.

“Roman J. Israel, Esq.” isn’t quite the movie that it clearly aspires to be. It seems to have all of the right pieces for a top-notch legal drama – it appears to strike the proper tone and hit the necessary beats – but for whatever reason, it can’t quite push itself over the top. That’s largely due to a healthy dose of heavy-handedness; there’s a lack of narrative subtlety that weighs down the film.

But let’s be clear – none of that is Denzel’s fault. In his capable hands, Roman J. Israel is a font of fascinating strangeness. From the shuffling gait to the darting eyes, from the subtle tics to the articulate awkwardness, it’s a transformative part. That’s actually somewhat of a rarity for Denzel these days; it can be difficult for him to fully subsume his inherent Denzel-ness, but he manages here. Much to our benefit, I might add. He holds the screen effortlessly – sometimes without even speaking a word.

The supporting cast steps up their games as well. Ferrell has always been hit-or-miss for me, but he’s actually really good here. He gets a bit hamstrung by the nature of the story being told, but he navigates it without much trouble. He makes the character’s choices feel justified, which in turn makes him compelling. Ejogo is a gifted actress, a fact that becomes increasingly evident with each scene she shares with Denzel. The give and take between the two is marvelous; a lesser light could have been overwhelmed by the power of Denzel’s performance, but she is no less engaging to watch. She illustrates a nuanced character in a relatively short time – it’s impressive.

But Dan Gilroy – who has written numerous films (including this one), but only directed one previously (2014’s excellent “Nightcrawler”) – never really gets out of his own way. There’s an excellent movie in here somewhere – the performances alone are proof of that – but for whatever reason, Gilroy’s story doesn’t click. Things are just a little too on the nose; some narrative nuance to match that offered up by the cast would have been welcome. He’s a good storyteller with the potential to be a good director, but this sophomore effort doesn’t measure up.

Again, there’s a lot to like about “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” It’s some high-quality Denzel, which is always great to watch. And in truth, it’s enough to make this a film worth seeing – particularly when you throw in the strong work of Ferrell, Ejogo and others. But this movie feels like it barely missed being much better than merely “worth seeing” – and that’s a shame.

[3.5 out of 5]

Last modified on Wednesday, 29 November 2017 12:57

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