Denzel Washington gets his teeth into a fascinating character in Dan Gilroy's legal drama
Fences offered welcome proof that Denzel Washington still wants to push himself as an actor. He could easily settle for a career of Equalizer sequels and similarly undemanding action fare but clearly hungers for more. Legal drama Roman J. Israel, Esq provides a further opportunity for Washington to lose himself inside a complex, compelling character.
Israel is a fiery Los Angeles criminal defence lawyer who believes in doing everything by the book. He was active in the civil rights movement and still retains his idealism. He is also socially awkward, deeply eccentric, probably some kind of savant and clearly not suited for the real world. The real world becomes unavoidable when he is employed by ambitious, hotshot fellow lawyer George Pierce (Colin Farrell) and finds his core values questioned every day of his working life.
Writer-director Dan Gilroy's follow-up to his acclaimed debut Nightcrawler works best in the opening half as a detailed study of a fascinating character and what makes him tick. The look, soundtrack of vintage funk and soul, and atmospheric use of LA locations give it a feel of a film from the 1970s. Dressed in baggy suits, sporting a three-inch afro and always wearing earphones, Israel is very much a relic of the past. Washington invests him with the pride of a true believer in truth and justice, which also makes him a hugely vulnerable figure in an age where virtue is a luxury.
The film meanders and starts to flounder when we arrive at a particular murder case and an action on Israel's part that seems out of character, with the daisy chain of consequences feeling too contrived for comfort. Even so, Roman J. Israel, Esq is a fantastic showcase for Washington who really shines here, making Israel noble, flawed and unknowable. Yet, taken as a whole, it isn't quite worthy of the character or his performance.
General release from Fri 2 Feb.