ROMAN J. ISRAEL, ESQ. review by Mark Walters – Denzel Washington plays a quirky outcast

ROMAN J. ISRAEL, ESQ. review by Mark Walters – Denzel Washington plays a quirky outcast

Denzel Washington has made a career out of playing a wide variety of characters, everything from heroic historical figures to crooked cops, and he’s proven he’s not afraid to take on a role that is inherently unlikable. In ROMAN J. ISRAEL, ESQ., he takes on one of his oddest personas yet, which in some ways may also be one of his most realistic. The film comes from writer/director Dan Gilroy, who previously gave us the gritty Jake Gyllenhaal thriller NIGHTCRAWLER. In this production, Gilroy tackles some of the less attractive aspects of attorney lifestyles, and some of the temptations they potentially face.

Introverted defense attorney (and savant) Roman J. Israel, Esq. (Washington) works for a longtime law firm in Los Angeles, processing paperwork and spending almost all of his time in the office while the firm owner battles in court. When his boss takes ill, Roman attempts to ask for continuances on all of their open cases, but his quirky personality and lack of people skills just make things worse. Eventually his firm is forced to bring in help in the form of hotshot lawyer George Pierce (Colin Farrell) taking time away from his own highly successful office, but this is the beginning of the end as Roman is about to be without a job. With his firm’s founder in a coma, they simply can’t afford to keep the doors open. Pierce offers Israel a job, which initially he deflects. Roman begins looking for work elsewhere, at one point stopping in the headquarters of a black activist group led by Maya Alston (Carmen Ejogo), who informs him their folks work on a volunteer basis. Despite having no job opportunities there, Maya does ask him to speak to her group at some point, as she figures his experience could be rather educational. Eventually Roman takes Pierce up on his offer, but is told he is not to make any major decisions on their cases, just help out where needed and leave the heavy lifting to the other attorneys of the firm. One of their cases involves a young man sent to prison because he was unintentionally involved in a robbery where a clerk was shot dead, but the shooter escaped. Roman talks to the boy, who is terrified in jail, and confides to Israel the location of the shooter. This begins a chain of events that takes Roman down a dark path, and one that may change his life forever.

If you look at this film as a character study, there are fascinating aspects surrounding the personification of Roman J. Israel, Esq. – this is a role Denzel Washington clearly saw potential in playing, and one he makes the most of in certain scenes. We’ve all met this guy, someone altogether brilliant and highly capable, yet lacking people skills and the personality needed to ever truly succeed past a certain point. He’s not so much unlikable, he’s just off-putting and a little odd. From the old school afro to the baggy clothes, to his perceived antiquated thinking, Roman looks and sounds like the product of a different era… a man that never evolved. There’s also a subplot involving an opportunity for our lead character to get a serious leg up by way of one questionable act, and it’s the kind of thing we’ve probably all wondered how we would handle if put in the same circumstance. This may not be one of the best characters Washington has played, but it’s easily one of the most interesting. Colin Farrell is quite good portraying the very straight-laced and highly successful attorney that is everything Israel is not. I’m always impressed with Farrell, as even when his characters aren’t necessarily anything amazing, he effectively pulls them off with chameleon-like accuracy to where you completely forget his real life talk show personality. I actually wanted more of this role explored, perhaps some back story, as it’s only eluded to that Pierce was mentored by Roman’s former boss, which is why he’s so willing to help when their firm is in trouble. The only character that doesn’t feel fully realized is Maya, played by Carmen Ejogo. She’s meant to help humanize Roman, and potentially be a romantic interest (I’m guessing), but her relationship with him seems forced and very truncated in the script. I have to wonder if there was more to this, as supposedly 12 minutes of the original film cut was removed before release, and the narrative retooled a bit after initial film festival screenings.

Gilroy proved with NIGHTCRAWLER and again here that he knows how to make engaging stories and characters, so much so that the audience will be transfixed even if the events on screen aren’t terribly interesting or out of the ordinary. But it’s always going somewhere, there’s always a few surprises waiting around the corner, and this clever auteur really knows how to build tension and twist the emotional knife when needed. ROMAN J. ISRAEL, ESQ. is a film that feels like a more classic era of filmmaking, sort of that 1970s gritty crime drama that sucks you in and doesn’t resort to cheap thrills, just tells a solid story that makes you think. As it’s expected folks may compare this to Gilroy’s NIGHTCRAWLER (especially since the marketing mentions it heavily), I can safely say it’s not as good or even as effective, but still a smart effort from all involved. Today’s moviegoers may leave the theater wanting more or feeling underwhelmed, but if you go in with the right mindset, you might be surprisingly impressed with what’s on display.

ROMAN J. ISRAEL, ESQ. opens November 22, 2017

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About the Author

Born and raised in Dallas, Mark has been a movie critic since 1994, with reviews featured in print, radio and National TV. In 2001 he started the Entertainment section of the Herorealm website, where he contributed film reviews and celebrity interviews until 2004. After three years of service there, he started, which has become one of the Dallas film community's leading information websites. Bigfanboy hosts several movie screenings in the Texas area, and works closely with film and TV studios and promotional partners to host exciting events and contests. The site also features a variety of rare celebrity and filmmaker interviews, and regularly covers the film festival circuit as well. In addition to Hollywood reporting, Mark has worked for many years as an advertising and sci-fi/comic book artist. Clients have included Lucasfilm Ltd., Topps Trading Cards, The Dallas Mavericks and The Dallas Stars. From 2002 until 2015 he managed the Dallas Comic Con, Sci-Fi Expo and Fan Days events in the DFW area. He currently catalogs rare comic books and movie memorabilia for Heritage Auctions, and runs the Dallas Comic Show conventions, but remains an avid moviegoer and cinema buff.