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Roman J. Israel, Esq.
Law-related movies are a tough sit for me now, as I usually like to leave that stuff behind at the office when I come home. Roman J. Israel, Esq. is another film in which leading actor Denzel Washington's performance far surpasses the narrative. Washington plays the title character, a book-smart, unassuming attorney who works at a small firm in Los Angeles. He is the "behind-the-scenes guy," preparing all the briefs, motions and pleadings for his partner, William Jackson. When that man suddenly falls ill, Roman is courted by George Pierce (Colin Farrell), a slick partner at a big law firm that consulted with Jackson, to come work with him. Roman eventually does that, and several early, key decisions threaten to overtake his longstanding ideals and derail his career. The payoff here is disappointing, as is the long list of court-system inaccuracies, but Washington is at least compelling.
Roman does not go to court, and he has not updated his suit collection in decades. He sits in his cluttered downtown office and works diligently so his mentor and partner can take his work and present it convincingly in front of the judge. After Jackson's heart attack, Roman does go to court and quickly angers a local judge. Pierce stops by soon after and tells Roman the firm is going to be shuttered but that he can come work at his large law firm. Roman initially declines and seeks employment with an activist, legal-aid type organization. He does not get the job, so he reluctantly accepts work with Pierce. Although I initially suspected Pierce was going to be the film's antagonist, this turns out not to be the case. He's actually a decent guy, tries to maintain high ethics, and even offers Roman the chance to head up a newly created pro bono division at the firm. These details are refreshing, as I was prepared for Roman J. Israel, Esq. to start lawyer-bashing at its first opportunity.
So, what is the conflict here? For starters, Roman certainly has some social challenges to overcome in order to work at a big law firm. He also quickly becomes corrupted by money; money he got by claiming a reward for helping police locate a murder suspect after divulging privileged information from a client interview. This results in someone getting attacked, and the movie simply offers Roman a variety of uneasy conversations in order to explain his actions. In a movie that seemed to be guiding its hero toward virtue and justice, Roman's split-second decision feels false and manipulative. Unfortunately, writer/director Dan Gilroy (Nightcrawler) lost me 1/3 of the way in, and the film never got my trust back. Men are fallible, sure, but do not tell me Roman is a pillar of ethics and social justice and then paint him willing to ruin his entire career and reputation after five minutes in big law.
Another bullshitty thing Roman J. Israel, Esq. does is offer an alternative, underdeveloped plotline about a big project Roman has worked on for years and now wants to share with Pierce. Essentially, the project is a manifesto and condemnation of the entire court system, and Roman theorizes that the machine is designed to force defendants to plead guilty. As a criminal attorney who has sat on both sides of the courtroom, this theory is tiresome and completely undercooked. That Gilroy chose to make this such a large part of the plot is puzzling, as the idea is hardly elaborated upon; the movie never shows us any evidence that Roman is correct. The film is instead comfortable with providing a cursory, uninformed overview of the legal system in order to provide context to its central character's life. The narrative is simply too slapdash and undeveloped to become meaningful. Washington, of course, provides a subtle, impressive performance, but the biggest injustice here is Gilroy and company leaving the actor high and dry with this eye-rolling story.
PICTURE AND SOUND:
Wow, it has been years since I have watched a movie in standard definition. I am not sure why Sony chose to send a DVD screener for this film, but I decided to check it out anyway. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, standard-definition image is fine, I suppose. The image is reasonably clear, with decent details and bold colors. The camera work is confident, as is Robert Elswit's cinematography, and the image begs for more resolution. Moderate black crush is evident in nighttime scenes, and I noticed some aliasing on buildings. The 5.1 Dolby Digital track is also adequate, and offers appropriate element spacing and clear dialogue. Light ambient effects surround the viewer, and the score is nicely reproduced. A host of subtitle options are available.
PACKAGING AND EXTRAS:
This single-disc release is packed in a standard DVD case that is wrapped in a slipcover. Sony includes an UltraViolet HD digital copy. Extras include Deleted Scenes (11:47 total); Denzel Washington: Becoming Roman (5:56); The Making of Roman J. Israel, Esq. (10:25); and Colin Farrell: Discovering George (4:46).
A disappointment for writer/director Dan Gilroy after his strong Nightcrawler, Roman J. Israel, Esq. is an undercooked, opinion-y drama without much substance to back up its theories. Denzel Washington is one of America's best actors, and his performance in the title role is expectedly good. The script lets down Washington in a big way, and this movie warrants no more than a Rent It recommendation.
William lives in Burlington, North Carolina, and looks forward to a Friday-afternoon matinee.