by Joe Hammerschmidt
Oscar-winner Denzel Washington has portrayed his share of heroes and villains in a robust four-decade career. His newest film, Roman J. Isreal, Esq. is like looking into a mirror, therefore. Returning to familiar territory, as both an eccentric figure of the law, and a satisfying anti-hero with a weakening moral complex, an archetype the actor has defined in recent memory, Washington and Roman are almost one and the same, catching up to modern trends while refusing to let go of the past. It is the latter where the veteran defense attorney falls victim to the consequence of a flawed ego, as his comfortable past makes way for a more modern, more complicated value system in the legal world. It’s another case of Washington burying himself so easily into a role that he appears comfortable in those shoes; here, though, if there was one small complaint to be made, it’s that he doesn’t come back up to breathe.
After a prologue which sets Roman’s descent at the end of its roll, the first sign something is assuredly wrong falls with his old mentor and partner falling ill from a heart attack and eventually losing a battle to recover, causing their firm to shut down. Roman, a 25-year veteran of the LA legal scene with a penchant for PB&J and old-school R&B being constantly played on headphones he maintains on his person at all times, is suddenly in a vulnerable position without a wing to rest under as that guy working behind the scenes while the bosses take all the credit. Enter George Pierce (Colin Farrell, once again at the top of his character-driven game), a student of the deceased, and a figurative shark among minnows, eager to swallow up the old assets of the broken firm, and reluctantly hire Roman, despite his savant-like qualities not quite matching modern ethical standards.
Immediately, they do not see eye-to-eye, their ethics just clashing terribly against each other as Roman simply tries to avoid getting fired under his boot. And their kinetic employer/employee chemistry works just as awkwardly, making as much sense as Roman with sudden romantic interest Maya (Carmen Ejogo), an activist and professed fan of Roman’s work; very welcome, though still without hesitation. Even as Roman experiences a minor existential rigamarole in complete desperation to prevent his life from falling apart by lack of income, her presence fails to make sharp waves.
I have a great deal of respect for the effortless genius of writer/director Dan Gilroy; his previous film, Nightcrawler, left a significant impression on its strengths as a horror-esque drama geared to enthrall the viewer into the wildest delirium possible, it almost turned maddening to watch. What Gilroy does differently is what prevents Israel from breaking out as a surefire winner; it builds so much potential in its first hour with the back and forth between Roman and George. The transition back to Roman’s self-centered epiphany causes a significant disconnect, almost as if the channel was immediately changed to a separate film with the same characters.
Until about the midway point, Israel IS an excellent motion picture; the last twenty minutes manages to put events back on track. That period in between those two points is where the fault lies, where we’re trapped square in the character’s crisis. Recounting it is nearly as frustrating as having viewed it, in that his moment of clarity doesn’t match the rest of the film, and Washington’s ability to convey a character as part of his soul is hindered just slightly as a result. The film comes nowhere near total derailment through this sudden shift, yet its structural integrity is sadly compromised.
Gilroy could’ve easily avoided these awkward mistakes in the writing phase; it’s possible the edits made on the product after its premiere at TIFF may’ve been unnecessary for the sake of keeping its coherency on point. As it is, Roman J. Israel, Esq. wants to be something amazing, something fierce, with Denzel delivering another awards-worthy performance that easily commands your attention. Unfortunately, it’s hard to watch such a mammoth turn if the source material, surprisingly original, dilutes the abilities of its actors with a messy plot lacking in organizational skills. Going in blind, I wanted so much to enjoy this effort as much as I did the stage play-esque Fences; it’s determined not to lose its grip on the viewer, yet it does anyway, and it just felt insulting, right up to a long shot over credits that neither contributes nor hurts its odds. Worth a watch, especially if to stay ahead of your Oscar pool; otherwise, wait to rent. (C+)
Roman J. Israel, Esq expands in wide release this weekend; rated PG-13 for language and some violence; 122 minutes.