[Screen It]

"ROMAN J. ISRAEL, ESQ."
(2017) (Denzel Washington, Colin Farrrell) (PG-13)


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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: A brilliant if unconventional behind the scenes defense lawyer must contend with the death of his business partner and the subsequent need to find a new job and pay the bills.
PLOT:
For several decades, Roman J. Israel, Esq. (DENZEL WASHINGTON), has been the behind the scenes worker bee at a two-person criminal defense law firm in Los Angeles. While not paid much, and likely having Asperger Syndrome or something similar that makes him occasionally awkward in social intereactions, he believes in what he does -- what with being a former political activist -- and has been working for the past seven years on trying to change the overall plea bargain scenario in criminal cases.

But things change for him when his partner who did all of the courtroom work has a heart attack, ends up in a vegetative state and eventually dies. All of which brings in George Pierce (COLIN FARRELL) a former student of that man who now runs a very successful law firm and has been tasked with closing out any remaining cases and then liquidating the firm. When he realizes Roman is something of a savant when it comes to legal knowledge, George offers him a job, but Roman would rather work for social activists and thus ends up meeting Maya Alston (CARMEN EJOGO), a volunteer for such a firm.

But needing money and unable to find a paying job anywhere else, Roman accepts George's offer to work for him, although he clashes with some of Roman's executives. When he ends up assigned to a case involving a 17-year-old who's been charged with a convenience store murder the teen says he didn't do, Roman begins working the case. After hearing the teen knows the whereabouts of the actual killer, and learning there's a $100,000 reward from the local community to catch that perpetrator, Roman finds himself torn between doing the right thing and the potential of getting his hands on cash that could help him live more comfortably.

OUR TAKE: 4.5 out of 10
It might seem peculiar to begin a review about a film featuring a brilliant if socially awkward lawyer with a sports metaphor, but bear with me, there's a method to my madness. My favorite professional football team is the Detroit Lions despite having never stepped foot in the Motor City or anywhere in the state of Michigan for that matter. Yes, ever since early childhood, I've been a glutton for emotional punishment as that team has only won one playoff game since the late 1950s.

But they have arguably the best quarterback playing today in Matthew Stafford. Not only is he tough as nails, but he can extend plays and make passes like few others. In short, he's incredibly gifted and his play is usually amazing, especially in terms of fourth-quarter comebacks. But he's forever been stuck on a mediocre team that's had a few other stars over the years, but questionable to downright bad coaching, some poor draft choices and such have left him being one of the few stars stuck in an otherwise dim sports franchise.

After watching Denzel Washington in the awkwardly titled "Roman J. Israel, Esq." you might feel the same way about the always reliable movie star. And that's because while he and his performance shine throughout, that alone can't save the overall offering that isn't anywhere as impressive as it meanders, loses focus, and doesn't really consistently grab the viewer.

The film begins with an interesting hook as we see a close-up of a legal brief being typed out (and read aloud by the title character) making a case claim by the protagonist against himself for wrongdoing. All of which gets us wondering exactly what he did, who he is, and why he's taking this highly unusual step. And as is oft the case, the story -- penned by writer /director Dan Gilroy -- then rewinds to tell the tale that will obviously eventually lead us back to this introductory moment.

While I'm not a big fan of such intro and then rewind storytelling tactics, I was willing to give that a chance. After all, Gilroy previously helmed the terrific thriller "Nightcrawler" about a smart but socially awkward character who ends up going off the deep end. And seeing that the title character here is also smart and socially awkward, things seem to start off promisingly enough.

Washington certainly gives it his all in creating a unique character (much like Jake Gyllenhaal did in Gilroy's last film) who's the behind-the-scenes worker bee at a two-person, criminal defense law firm in Los Angeles. But unlike many of his contemporaries, he doesn't live a lavish lifestyle despite being something of a savant when it comes to all things law related, an innate talent that would seem to make him attractive to bigger firms.

And that's exactly what happens when a high-flying law firm comes knocking in the form of George Pierce (Colin Farrell) who's been tasked with shutting down Roman's firm when his partner suffers a massive heart attack and eventually dies. The middle-aged lawyer and former civil rights activist, however, is more interested in idealism than capitalism. But money talks and a lack of that and any other job offers leads Roman back to George's firm where a tantalizing but morally and legally dicey opportunity eventually presents itself.

While that might sound intriguing, that new story direction only occasionally gets into the end zone, so to speak, but more often than not fumbles the potential that's present. The filmmaker, though, does try to dial up the suspense late in the film with an added plot twist that might lead, against long odds, to a movie saving drive with the clock counting down toward the conclusion.

Alas it doesn't, and by then the meandering and often lackluster and weak plot -- that also includes a half-baked subplot where Carmen Ejogo plays another idealistic activist who befriends Roman -- has already ended up feeling like the victim of bad play calling, and no late in the game performance heroics by Washington can save the offering.

In the end, you'll admire the veteran actor for his work here, but you'll wish the rest of the film surrounding him was as good and interesting as he and his character are. "Roman J. Israel, Esq." rates as a 4.5 out of 10.




Reviewed November 20, 2017 / Posted November 22, 2017


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