COLUMBIA PICTURES (2018)
Director: Dan Gilroy
Starring: Denzel Washington, Colin Farrell, Carmen Ejogo, Amari Cheatom, Amanda Warren
The next in line from Dan Gilroy after the splendid Nightcrawler, Roman J. Israel, Esq. is able to boast the talents of one Denzel Washington and the not-so-bad-himself Colin Farrell (continuing his career renaissance) – that’s a good start. It’s the story of one man against the changing legal systems, one that staunchly holds on to his beliefs and morals of justice, even in the face of ever-growing resistance.
Surely this is an emotional, testing, thought-provoking legal drama then?
Roman J. Israel, Esq. (Washington) is a legal genius and savant, but lacks anything close to interpersonal skills. As part of a forty-year partnership, he sat in the shadows, compiling the work whilst his partner took public credit. However, once his partner passes away, Roman’s life is thrown into turmoil. Realising his firm is broke and hasn’t been entirely ethical, and after several unsuccessful job interviews elsewhere, Roman returns to the firm – now headed up by steely-eyed George Pierce (Farrell). His antiquated appearance and approach is quickly at odds with the hyper-contemporary company and Roman is soon in hot water for his handling of clients. When the chance to serve justice upon a wrongly-free man using confidential information, and earn $100,000 reward for doing so, rears its head, Roman finds himself in a tough position – does he carry on down the same path he’s always followed or turn against his long-held beliefs even though the consequences could be deadly?
Part biography, part crime drama, Roman J. Israel, Esq. attempts to weave both elements into the one story and unfortunately it doesn’t work. It becomes a muddle of ideas as the titular character makes strange decision after strange decision (which goes against the idea that he is incredibly smart...). Too often there’s a whole lot of nothing going on as characters (usually Roman) unleash torrents of monologues which don’t lead anywhere or carry the emotional heft they maybe were intended to have. After the superb character-driven Nightcrawler, this feels a bit limp and really, a bit dull.
Denzel Washington is fine in the lead role, but it’s certainly not one of his best roles or performances. At times it seems as if even he is struggling to get through the movie. The fact that the character is written in a way that makes him flat and not entirely likable didn’t help Washington. Colin Farrell and Carmen Ejogo are under-utilised in their respective roles of legal eagle George and social activist Maya. The movies best scene are when either, usually Farrell is involved, but these are few and far between.
The message of black rights is sadly still prevalent in this day and age and the movie makes no bones about highlighting this. Roman himself dresses as if he is from the 1970’s, when the movements began to gain steam, but bringing himself into the present day with an eventual change of image, it’s clear not a lot has changed. The movie doesn’t run fully with this thread though, and when it attempts to become a crime-thriller then lines become blurred and the movie falls flat. The writing isn’t incisive enough to really get behind and much of what was intended never comes through. It’s obviously not all doom and gloom, there are some great lines from Roman (“Esquire rates ‘above gentleman’, but below Knight") and the message of balancing your morals is a worthy one indeed. The movies key scene – and highlight – is when Roman attempts to deliver a speech to a classroom of students, but it’s clear that he is completely out of touch with society.
What the movie does have is a toe-tappingly great soundtrack featuring the likes of Marvin Gaye, Eddie Kendricks, Childish Gambino and Funkadelic (plus a cool namedrop of the just-as-cool Gil Scott-Heron early on). If you don't appreciate the greatness of the music, check yourself. Roman J. Israel, Esq. also looks nice, the looming towers of Los Angeles captured in all their size, design and glory as Roman breezes past with his ‘70s look and old-style headphones provide a nice contrast and is one aspect of the movie that doesn’t get old.
Suffering from plodding pacing and uncompelling characters, Roman J. Israel, Esq. never really gets off the ground. Movies like this don’t need to be full of whizz-bang to be engrossing, but a small fizz would have helped somewhat. Washington is OK, there are some good messages sprinkled in, but Roman J. Israel, Esq. is unfortunately a lacklustre experience.
January 20th 2018