Film Review: Roman J. Israel, Esq.

Contemporary legal drama, emanating both strong retro vibes and timely racial issues, is fueled by another terrific Denzel Washington performance—here a socially inept, financially strapped L.A. lawyer/civil-rights advocate tempted to cross a line.
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Writer-director Dan Gilroy achieved prominence as a screenwriter for The Bourne Legacy before his 2014 directorial debut with the dark indie Nightcrawler, which brought him an Oscar nomination for his screenplay. With Roman J. Israel, Esq. and the formidable skill and star power of Denzel Washington, Gilroy goes bigger and better with a film deserving a long life at the box office.

This entertaining package for a broad swath of filmgoers also offers extras for smarties. This means a deep dive into a busy corner of the legal profession, with all the jargon, biases and politicking that go along with it, and a big city’s criminal-justice system of often-flawed, overburdened D.A.s. As lawyer hero Israel is also a well-preserved relic of the Civil Rights movement, the film also provides nostalgic blasts of the kind of social activism and progressive thinking that jolted the ’60s and ’70s.

Roman himself, stuck in low-paying advocacy on behalf of the disadvantaged for many years, lives in a time warp: rumpled old clothes and boxy briefcase seemingly not replaced since law school and activism days, an Afro that evokes Oakland of decades back, a dingy LP-packed downtown L.A. apartment (no bullfight posters or Playboy pin-ups but homages to activist heroes like Bayard Rustin and Angela Davis). His longtime boss is legendary civil-rights litigator William Henry Jackson; while Jackson been “the front of the house,” Roman has done all the nitty-gritty, literal backroom research and strategizing for Jackson’s cases.

With Roman’s uncanny memory for numbers and minutiae, including recall of legal statutes and the like. he’s perfectly suited to his niche in the profession. But he’s also socially awkward, suggesting another niche somewhere on the Asperger scale.

The narrative kicks in early when Roman learns that Jackson has had a debilitating and ultimately fatal heart attack, and his heirs decide to sell the firm after it’s clear that Roman lacks Jackson’s skills. Their sale is to ambitious, nattily suited lawyer George Pierce (Colin Farrell), a former student of Jackson’s who’s now at the top of a prominent L.A. law firm that itself sits atop a tall gleaming tower of glass and concrete.

Pierce, unsure of the baggage that Roman carries, gives him a chance, but the two lawyers could be dubbed “oily and watery.” Still, Roman is soon onboard with a case of a two-man store robbery involving murder, in which one perp, Derrell (DeRon Horton), is caught and another named C.J. (Amari Cheaton) is on the loose. Derrell, assigned to Roman, insists to his defense attorney that C.J. did the fatal shooting.

Pierce instructs Roman to accept a plea-bargain deal with the tough, overworked D.A. with harsh demands, but Roman, activist hairs flaring, fights back. His bargaining skills are nil, he declines the offer and the perp is kept in custody to await trial. But while there, he’s murdered.

Pierce, his instructions defied, is furious with Roman, who finds his career spiraling downward and job prospects dim. Stuck forever in his advocacy world, he tries to get hired as the paid, full-time advocate for a nonprofit that assists the city’s disenfranchised. He pitches the group’s leader Maya (Selma’s Carmen Ejogo), who takes a liking to Roman but informs him that she’s fully staffed up. And with volunteers. She does convince Roman to return for a speech to the staff and the nonprofit’s followers. A friendship between the two builds from there.

At rock bottom, Roman, who in his conversations with Derrell has learned of his partner’s whereabouts, embarks on a scheme to make some bad money. He calls the murdered shopkeeper’s relative with a deal that he is able to consummate: $100,000 and all cash in return for information on the perp’s whereabouts. Roman begins spending the cash on a much-needed beach vacation and especially on nice suits; he even brings Maya to some classy restaurants and checks out new co-op apartments for sale. Not suspecting a thing, Pierce has a change of heart (or is it his exploitation instincts?) and brings Roman back into the posh law firm in style, soon making him the head of the new pro-bono department.

Roman J. Israel, Esq. continues engagingly from there, suggesting that not greed but human nature at both its noblest and ugliest is what makes us tick. The film arrives at an ending that some may deem too ambiguous, but so what? Washington’s remarkable performance, the production design evoking a little-seen L.A. and Gilroy’s taut script are all groovy. 

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