ROMAN J. ISRAEL ESQ. is more of a character study than it is an actual movie. The same could be said for Dan Gilroy’s previous directorial effort Nightcrawler, although Nightcrawler had much more of a plot than this movie does. Deznel Washington lights up the screen (let’s face it, like he always does, this is one of the greatest actors of any generation) with such a quirky and memorable character, I just wish it was in a more plot driven vehicle. Not to say the movie is bad, the character study had me fascinated the entire two hours, but when I look back at the movie, I realized that not much really happened.
If the trailers confused you on what this movie is about or how it plays out, you aren’t the only one. From the trailers you glean that this is a quirky, good, and smart lawyer that “breaks bad” and gets into a dangerous situation by taking a clients whereabouts of a fellow criminal, and getting the reward money to himself to make his life easier. Eh, not really. While that does kinda, sorta happen, there is much more going on to that situation, and that situation doesn’t really happen until a little more than halfway through the film, and the resolution is predictable, dull, and doesn’t have any intensity or other progression to warrant it being an actual plot point.
The movie is really about a lawyer that works with a small firm (really only a receptionist and one other lawyer). Roman is the lawyer behind the curtain so to speak, where he deals with the law, and gives everything he knows to the other lawyer, the one who makes actual court appearances to protect clients that have hired them. Well, that lawyer gets a heart attack and goes into a vegetative state, and Roman has to pick up the pieces. Not much long after, a relative of the heart attack lawyer dismantles the firm that hasn’t made a profit in years and he’s basically out on the street looking for money. Reluctant at first, because he is a good, nice, fair lawyer that hates the system because not many people see a trial, just take a plea bargain in fear of a greater punishment, eventually takes a job with a pupil (Colin Farrell) of the heart attack lawyer, who is a lawyer whose ethics Roman despises, because it is about the money, not the people. Afraid he is about to get fired at one point, he does take the clients info and gets the reward money, and he befriends a woman at a non profit organization that wasn’t too important to remember for me.
But all this is really background noise. It’s a character study of a man struggling with his identity, and when he strays a little bit from it, gets into some major trouble that lasts about 5 minutes of screen time. Denzel Washington is absolutely captivating in this movie though, and while the movie could’ve been much, much, much better, I would mind if Washington was again nominated for this film. His speech pattern and speeches are amazing to watch and after this movie I could completely watch Washington sit in a chair for 3 hours and talk about random shit and it would still be enthralling (see: Fences). Colin Farrell is actually much more in the film than the trailer shows and has a good little character arc himself. Carmen Ejogo, who has been in a shit ton of supporting roles over the years, has always been a good actress, but her character here just complains and cries to Roman about the system, and it does get a bit tiring.
If writer/director Dan Gilroy could’ve taken this character, and put it in a different movie, hell, maybe even a legal procedural, this could’ve been something really special. But the lack of a plot of the predictability of what the films tries to conjure up as a plot make this a movie that is ultimately forgettable other than Washington’s performance. It is ultimately a tad disappointing since Dan Gilroy’s last film, Nightcrawler with Jake Gyllenhaul, was so freaking good that I put it in my top ten list of 2014 films. But I can’t say the movie was that bad either, because I was neither bored or completely put off by it. And I would probably recommend it, just not in a theater, but in a courtroom with some of your peers in your living room.