Roman J. Israel, Esq.
From his enigmatic loyalty to Antoine Fuqua to enabling the worst of Robert Zemeckis to the tragic loss of Tony Scott, his partner in quality mindless entertainment, Denzel Washington has made a remarkable amount of missteps in the past decade.
Back on the right track as of late, due largely to his powerful work in front of the camera and his subtly stylized efforts behind it in Fences, the two-time Oscar winner keeps his new hot streak alive in Roman J. Israel, Esq., the latest thoroughly Los Angeles tale from Nightcrawler writer/director Dan Gilroy.
As the eponymous old school civil rights attorney, Washington is terrific with the verbal dexterity Gilroy’s script demands — gifting humanity phrases like “enema of sunshine” — and ably dons Roman’s other thoroughly throwback traits.
Dressing in frumpy, not-quite-a-suit attire with a somewhat unkempt afro, he uses a flip phone and an iPod several generations behind the latest model with retro, orange-foam Sony earphones that rarely leave his head when he’s not working.
No car to his name, Roman walks everywhere with an accidentally humorous, slightly hunched gait, toting around a hefty satchel with a brief he’s been developing for decades that has the potential to reform the legal system or could be proof of his insanity — it’s deliciously hard to say.
Still, there’s more to Roman than his eccentricities. A behind-the-scenes genius with savant tendencies, he’s thrust into the courtroom and the greater legal world when his boss and legal partner falls into a coma, a modern system with which his commitment to doing the right thing and speaking his mind does not jive.
The rebel’s disinterest in kowtowing hilariously gets him in trouble at the courthouse and in the law offices of new boss George Pierce (Colin Farrell, building on his already strong year), who takes over the firm’s remaining cases to make what’s been largely a charity operation as solvent as possible.
Through these stressful changes and irritants already plaguing Roman, Gilroy carefully introduces the various factors weighing on our guy until he reaches a wholly understandable breaking point and makes a decision in contrast with his prior integrity.
At the same time, the officially trusted director shoots L.A. with an insider’s eye, highlighting the impact of continuing development through such sympathetic details as the new apartment building encroaching on Roman’s modest abode for the past three decades, complains of whose construction at illegal night hours fall on deaf ears.
Such societal ignorance help make all of Roman’s actions worthy of support and, once they’re made, are complicated by the grounding voice of reason courtesy of volunteer lawyer Maya (Carmen Ejogo), who has much in common with Roman’s younger self.
The duo’s generational similarities and differences in a culture that doesn’t understand their ideology grants this otherwise disposable piece of entertainment a welcome undertone of awareness and makes Roman J. Israel, Esq. a worthy second step in Gilroy’s young but stellar directorial career.
Grade: A-minus. Rated PG-13. Now playing at AMC Classic, Biltmore Grande and Carolina Cinemark
(Photo: Columbia Pictures)