Synopsis – Roman J. Israel, Esq., a driven, idealistic defense attorney, finds himself in a tumultuous series of events that lead to a crisis and the necessity for extreme action.
My Take – As a cinephile, it’s amazing to realize how Denzel Washington, with a remarkable career spanning three decades, still remains one of our most iconic working actors today. With eight Oscar nominations (which includes two wins) and so many legendary roles that will forever live in the hearts of millions, a film starring Washington still manages to raises curiosity and excitement from a film going audience, who hope to see him unfold yet another masterpiece on screen. Hence, you could imagine my excitement when he decided to star in writer/director Dan Gilroy‘s sophomore directorial venture following Nightcrawler, one of the very best films of 2014. While the trailer of the film seemed like a potentially interesting biography of a powerful legal, pro-action character that was certain to stir up trouble, the film previously titled Inner City unfortunately ended up making waves for its poor reception at the Toronto Film Festival, following which director Gilroy ended up re-editing the film, by shuffling the scenes around while deleting a few and rearranging the soundtrack in hopes for a better result, sadly, the film with most of the original material intact, still manages to be a disappointment. Despite great potential, the film just doesn’t find its ground in the grand scheme of things even though Denzel Washington in the titular does his part of the heavy lifting in a role that lacks his usual cool factor, but outside of that the film lacks any sustenance. In addition, with a slow pace, weak character interactions, and an ambiguous plots, the film just fails to provide the very justice it wanted to serve. The story follows Roman J. Israel Esq. (Denzel Washington), a criminal defense lawyer who has been fighting small injustices on behalf of the disenfranchised. A fight for which Roman has never been given credit while giving it everything he has, including sacrificing any kind of personal life to do it.
He’s been the real brains behind a small two-partner law firm he’s formed with his former professor, and while tackling unglamorous cases he also has been assembling a brief that will change the class action portions of the justice system forever. When his partner, has a heart attack and is incapacitated, Roman learns that the firm is in fact broke and has been much less altruistic than he was aware, something his former professor kept secret from him. Deciding to spread his wings and try elsewhere, Roman at first applies to work with Maya Alston (Carmen Ejogo), a young and idealistic civil right activist with angelic qualities, but due to his financial conditions agrees to work with the slick George Pierce (Colin Farrell), whom his partner put in charge if something were to happen to him. It’s an uneasy fit from the beginning, and Roman finds himself almost immediately morally and ethically challenged, not only in his interpersonal approach to clients and cases but in who he can defend and why. However, when he tackles the case of a young African-American man arrested and charged with murder during a convenience store holdup, he begins to question everything he is and has done. Working as the exact opposite of director Gilroy‘s Nightcrawler, this film is about what happens when the world encounters a deeply moral person, and how it reacts in kind. The whole film portrays the struggle of holding on to your beliefs vs. diving into the acceptable flow the public/society deems normal. We all have breaking points that push us into new areas and test our fortitude, the question is where does one cross the line and how far do they leap over it. Roman’s tale shows the challenge quite well and more so what can happen when pushes the boundaries too far. It will get you thinking and perhaps question your own philosophies, assuming you can get past the other parts of this film. Much of the film focuses on Roman’s idealism and revolutionary beliefs, and what happens when that crumbles. There is also an odd quasi-love interest with Maya and we never really grasp why she is so taken by him, other than his seemingly solid belief system reminds her that a mission of goodness and justice is always worth fighting for.But despite all this, the film doesn’t really work as this the most frustrating kind of film there is: one that almost succeeds, and is more disappointing because it doesn’t. No matter what was changed from the original cut, little could save the film save for drastic re-shoots. The film’s biggest problem was how aimless the plot was and how the writing dragged out the nonsense Roman had to say to express his savant mentality, most of which did not making any sense or seemed philosophically unnecessary, and it runs for 122 minutes while doing so. Denzel carried his role so exceptionally well, that had this film been edited down to 80 or 90 minutes by getting rid of the convoluted and unnecessary dialogue, it would have been dramatized much better. The writers didn’t seem to figure out which way they wanted to take the film, is a piece about being an activist, is it a biography, and is it a crime/drama? I couldn’t quite figure out it as it felt like they settled on a little bit of everything, but didn’t hit the high-quality components of the genres.
The film’s main problem is that it can never focus for long enough on its core. If Nightcrawler worked because it was relentless, and because it let every new sequence in which Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) convinced the rest of the world to see things his way unfold over an extended period of time, here the film falls short because it keeps getting distracted by shiny new baubles. It has something to say, but it can never calm down long enough to finish its current thought out before moving on to the next one. The film could have used more crime/mystery to add the suspense, perhaps with a theme surrounding the hot political issues they try to cover, all showing the skills Roman represented. I don’t fell many will enjoy the approach they took, and the ambiguous story telling that was just stale and sad than anything else. Even though the emotional trials are strong, did the film have to be so dull? While I never expected this film to be an action packed, guns blazing tale, I certainly didn’t expect the film to lack so much suspense. The plot didn’t have enough edge, there wasn’t enough action or peaceful protest, and the absence of a real problem just led to a very lackluster tale. Also, we never actually get to see Roman’s supposed legal brilliance – quite the opposite. In his first appearance in the courtroom, he manages to antagonize the judge and get a $5000 fine for contempt of court. This man is a legal genius? A lack of people skills is no excuse here – you don’t need to be a master of etiquette to understand that mouthing off to a judge in a courtroom is a one-way ticket to disaster. The problem with the film is that the title character had his moral awakening years and years ago. Director Gilroy lards him up with character traits: He’s a former civil rights activist turned low-paid lawyer, with a passion for defending those the judicial system saddles with unfair verdicts and/or the whole plea bargain system. He’s a socially awkward shut-in who barely interacts with anybody, and he has such a rigid moral code that it doesn’t allow for flexibility in anyone, much less himself. All of these characterizations (and more) are mostly carried off by Washington, but they jostle uneasily against each other throughout the film, which leads to a sense that every new scene marks the beginning of another film entirely. Yes, there are some moments when this story line does emerge, like when Roman chastises a couple of higher-ups at the firm for talking crudely about women. But for the most part, director Gilroy abandons this idea and tries to examine what happens when Roman does something wrong, then has to find a way to reconcile that action with the self-he’s cultivated over the years, and it’s never as effective as it means to be. On a technical side, there are some beautiful shots throughout, particularly when cinematographer Robert Elswit films construction going on near Roman’s downtown Los Angeles apartment as though gentrification is literal Hell, with fiery sparks flying everywhere, lighting up the dark and of course the highlight of the film remain the performances. Denzel Washington is excellent here as the extremely passionate and slightly eccentric titular character. Here, he portrays the awkward character quite well, capturing the serious thoughts, the quirky mannerisms, and even the speech patterns necessary for portraying the mind within, it is so real you’d swear you’ve met him. This is Washington at his phenomenal best, and rightfully so deserves the Oscar nomination in the Best Actor in a Lead Role category. Besides Denzel Washington, there are several other noteworthy performances, like Colin Farrell who despite an underwritten role manages to be captivating and Carmen Ejogo who is also very likable as always. On the whole, ‘Roman J. Israel, Esq.’ is a strange film which despite a few interesting ideas & a solid Denzel Washington performance, ends up disappointing.
Directed – Dan Gilroy
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 122 minutes