“Safe House,” “Flight,” this; Denzel Washington continuously seems to pick films that aren’t as good as the performances he gives in them.
“Roman J. Israel, Esq.” stars Denzel Washington as the titular lawyer who has spent his whole life fighting the good fight for the little man. When the owner of his law firm has a heart attack, he must go and work at the large offices run by Colin Farrell. Carmen Ejogo also stars as Dan Gilroy writes and directs.
Dan Gilroy is best known for his 2014 directorial debut “Nightcrawler,” which was thrilling with its dissection and commentary of fame, journalism and consumer demand. “Roman J” tries to have ideas of its own, from America’s prison complex to the notion that once lawyers get good at their job they stop caring. Washington tries to carry the film on his shoulders and mask its flaws and does a decent enough job, although in his greatness he actually ends up making the narrative bumps being even more of an annoying issue.
I love a courtroom drama, so even middle-of-the-road films like this fall’s “Marshall” have moments of intrigue. The first half of “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” has some of these moments, with talks of plea deals and arguing with judges. I could tell things weren’t moving super smoothly but Washington’s awkward Roman (more on him in a second) and the content had me enjoying myself.
Unfortunately, about midway through the film a major event happens and then everything becomes aimless and a little meandering. Roman begins to go outside the rut he has spent the past 40 years of his career digging and nothing feels cohesive. At least the first half of the film seemed to have a clear vision and message; the second act is almost just random.
By the time we reach the climax we have gone through what feels like a half-dozen faux endings (the pacing of the second act really is poor) and the actual payoff of the ending we do get can’t help but feel underwhelming and like a bit of a cop out.
Which is a shame, because Washington has created a character that wants to stay with you. He means well, working for $500 a week for most all his life and still using an old iPod, Walkman headphones and a flip phone. He recognizes the flaws in the justice system, built on making people take lesser deals instead of intentionally harsh ones and wants to do his part to fix it. Award and social inept, brilliant and seemingly incorruptible, Roman Israel, or as he is compulsively sure to be sure people refer to him as, Roman J. Israel, Esquire, may not be one of Washington’s best performances but it certainly is one of his more unique ones.
If you’re a big fan of Denzel Washington and/or character pieces and are able to forgive narrative slogs and underdeveloped ideas then you will find more here to enjoy than the average filmgoer. I don’t want to undersell the film as a whole, as I still enjoyed a decent chunk of it and Washington (and Farrell, for that matter) is to be commended for holding the seams together when Gilroy’s script can’t fully deliver on the more ambitious plot points it establishes early on. It’s just unfortunate that the film isn’t as impactful as the characters in it.
Critics Rating: 5/10
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