Susan Granger’s review of “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” (Sony/Columbia Pictures)
Sublimely talented Denzel Washington deserves better than writer/director Dan Gilroy’s tepid, convoluted thriller in which he plays the titular role, an idealistic legal-savant whose nerdy, antisocial personality places him in the Asperger range on the autism spectrum.
When his beloved, long-time partner has a ruinous heart attack, Israel realizes he can’t run the downtown Los Angeles criminal law practice alone, particularly since it’s devoted to social justice, defending the poor and downtrodden on a pro-bono basis.
After he’s turned down for a salaried position at a civil-rights project headed by Maya Alston (Carmen Ajogo), Israel takes a job a mega-firm headed by slick, high-powered George Pierce (Colin Farrell) – with whom he seems to have little in common. And then he’s faced with a crisis of conscience.
After memorizing the entire California legal code, Israel has devoted years to assembling a class-action lawsuit to challenge the pervasive system of plea bargaining, dubbing it a rigged game in which prosecutors threaten defendants with hefty prison sentences, hoping to get them to plead ‘guilty,’ even if they’re innocent, thus short-circuiting the legal process.
“Each of us is greater than the worst thing we’ve ever done,” he maintains. So incarcerating young people for a long time almost guarantees that the worst thing they’ve ever done will define the rest of their lives.
Designed as a follow-up to his melodramatic “Nightcrawler,” which eviscerated the parasitic tabloid media culture, Dan Gilroy continues his cynical, character-driven concept. Roman J. Israel is a relic from the social-activism of the ‘60s and ‘70s. And corruption, once again, is the culprit.
Denzel Washington is almost unrecognizable with a shapeless, three-inch high Afro, aviator glasses and frumpy, mismatched outfits, yet his vocal eloquence is unmistakable. An anachronism in urban Los Angeles, he doesn’t own or drive a car. Instead, he walks, wearing headphones, lugging a huge leather briefcase.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” is a contrived, unfocused 5 – with a twisty, frustrating finale.