In America's myth, the pursuers of happiness always head west, where their dream finds its dusty terminus in the sun-baked side streets of L.A. And that dust, of course, has become a favourite locale for genre fiction, a good place to poke through the grime of lapsed ideals and rusted-out morality.
There, Raymond Chandler's private eye once saw many unseemly sights, and now it's the turn of Michael Connelly's public defender. For the uninitiated, Connelly is a pop wordsmith who writes the sort of page-flipping reads that often make for solid, well-crafted, and briskly paced Hollywood movies. Adapted from his book of the same title, The Lincoln Lawyer is just such a movie - until it isn't.
Straight out of the gate, the picture is every bit as slick and fast as its protagonist. His name is Mick Haller, a defence attorney who works the bottom of the criminal barrel, where the quality may be low but the quantity is unending. Although his clients are invariably guilty and woefully short of cash, at least they're in great supply, filling jails across the counties. That's why Mick keeps his office in the back seat of a Lincoln Continental, the better to speed from courthouse to courthouse.
Indeed, under the crisp direction of Brad Furman, speed is the operative word in the early frames, as we follow our quick-witted lawyer (Matthew McConaughey) on his quotidian rounds - sweet-talking a bailiff to get a case advanced on the docket; deliberately delaying the trial of a biker until the rest of the gang ponies up his fee; or plea bargaining on behalf of a short-sighted hooker who accepted payment in crack cocaine, only to get busted for possession. Just another day for him, but, for us, the procedural details of this judicial demimonde are enlightening and amusing and, best of all, surveyed at a sprint.
Efficient too is Furman's handling of the yarn's opening twist. Mick is a happy angler when he lands a rare fish: a defendant with big bucks. A fun-lover bankrolled by his rich mommy, Roulet (Ryan Phillippe) is accused of engaging in some very rough play with a bar girl. He insists it's all a setup, devised by the girl and her pimp to slap him with a lucrative civil suit, and the film's succinct flashbacks seem to confirm his story. Having finally found an innocent man, Mick gleefully takes the case, assigns his veteran investigator to dig up the exculpating proof (a dishevelled William H. Macy, looking as if he just migrated from the set of his TV series Shameless), and the plot is off and running as fast as ever.
At this juncture, even the clichéd subplots are deftly treated. For instance, as always in these gritty matters, Mick is divorced from his spouse (Marisa Tomei), but in lieu of the customary flirtatious bickering we get a brief sequence that speaks emotional volumes: The ex-husband carries their sleeping daughter, presumably after a weekend visit, back to the doorstep of the ex-wife, who accepts the precious bundle and, with a friendly smile, steps back inside. That short, nearly silent scene packs a volume of information.
Also, rebounding from a slew of iffy comedies, and perhaps hoping to re-channel his legal mojo from A Time to Kill, McConaughey does a highly credible job in the title role - not just with the slick Mick but, more important, with the transitional phase, when, like those private eyes of yore, his character gets out of his depth and that seen-it-all aplomb regresses to dazed confusion. McConaughey's performance steps up precisely when Mick falls a step behind.
Alas, then comes the big trouble, a drawn-out last act where the pace slows badly for the usual reason - the resolution gets ensnared in the very loose ends it's obliged to tie up. Consequently, what began as quick and engaging, Hollywood craft at its most proficient, ends as dull and predictable, Hollywood product back in formulaic mode.
Still, fellow jurors, let's remember The Lincoln Lawyer at its best and deliver a generous verdict - an innocent entertainment, with extenuating circumstances.
The Lincoln Lawyer
- Directed by Brad Furman
- Written by John Romano
- Starring Matthew McConaughey and Ryan Phillippe
- Classification: 14A