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Denzel Washington and Colin Farrell in Roman J. Israel, Esq.

Glen Wilson

2.5 out of 4 stars

Title
Roman J. Israel, Esq.
Written by
Dan Gilroy
Directed by
Dan Gilroy
Starring
Denzel Washington, Colin Farrell and Carmen Ejogo
Classification
PG
Country
USA
Language
English

To watch Denzel Washington in his fourth decade of Hollywood is a privilege that we should all be thankful for. From Malcolm X to American Gangster – to say nothing of the two Oscars he holds for Glory and Training Day – Washington is by all well-reasoned accounts, a legend. In his latest legal thriller, Roman J. Israel, Esq., director Dan Gilroy has taken Washington's legendary talents for granted, squandering the actor on an unremarkable script and a hyperactive plot.

The story of Roman J. Israel, Esq. is the story of holding fast to morals in a corrupt world and just what happens if you loosen your grip. Washington plays Roman, a civil-rights lawyer in ill-fitting suits who eats the same Jif peanut butter sandwiches every day and does all the unglamorous behind-the-scenes work in his two-man law firm. He is noticeably out of step with the times, looking for revolution where there is capitalism instead and appending "Esquire" to his name – a courtesy title he explains is "just above gentleman and below knight."

Roman is the rarest of legal beagles, with steadfast scruples about the cases he tries and years devoted to the study of plea bargains and mass incarceration. Voice-over narration in the opening moments of the movie tells us that Roman has fallen from his moral high ground and would like to be punished for his missteps. He is both plaintiff and defendant in an (imaginary) case against himself.

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When Roman's legal partner – "The Bulldog" – has a heart attack, he is not asked to step up and take over the practice. Instead, The Bulldog's former law student George Pierce (Colin Farrell) is called upon to close up a shop that's been losing money on its social-justice charity cases for years.

Finally "tired of doing the impossible for the ungrateful," Roman goes to work for the big gun Pierce, who's more concerned with billable hours than penal reform. Farrell isn't great at playing a slick lawyer who begins to question his own ethics – lately he has stretched his acting chops in films such as Yorgos Lanthimos's The Killing of a Sacred Deer – and it's unsatisfying to watch his furrowed eyebrows wrestle with so plain a script.

Gilroy has been writing scripts since 1992, including the screenplay for The Bourne Legacy, and the last film he directed – Nightcrawler with Jake Gyllenhaal – was completely creepy and wonderful. It felt risky and timely in the age of 24-hour news cycles and our collective taste for gore and reality television. By comparison, Roman J. Israel, Esq. is ostensibly about principles, civil rights and fighting the good fight, but it has no teeth. Carmen Ejogo (Selma, Alien: Covenant) plays Maya, an activist organizer who befriends Roman, but whether her character is meant to be the voice of moral reason, or a love interest, or both, goes unsettled.

There are many more plot points in Roman J. Israel, Esq. to rehearse, which range from the elaborate to the sometimes absurd. Presumably there were even more twists and turns before Gilroy and Washington (who has a producing credit) cut 12 minutes from the movie after its tepid debut at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. And yet, what remains is still an unnecessarily convoluted parable of late-stage capitalism clashing with late-stage activism. The above star rating of the film is out of respect for Mr. Washington.

Roman J. Israel, Esq. opens Nov. 22.

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