Denzel Washington stars as Roman Israel, a driven, idealistic defense attorney who, through a tumultuous series of events, finds himself in a crisis that leads to extreme action.
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For the last few years, Oscar-winning actor Denzel Washington has been toiling away in either bland theatrical adaptations (Fences
) or phone-in action films (The Magnificent Seven
). The one constant has been that, no matter how bad the material is, Washington brings his A game to the screen, frequently elevating the quality of the film by simply being in it. Now, he finally gets a movie that is worthy of his talents with Roman J. Israel, Esq
Roman J. Israel, Esq.
stars Washington as an attorney, of course named Roman J. Israel, who is the behind-the-scenes legal mind at a small law practice. When his partner suffers a heart attack, the practice is dissolved and Roman is forced to find a new job. He meets a bright young activist named Maya Alston (Carmen Ejogo from It Comes at Night
) and explores the world of not-for-profit work, but the need for money persuades him to take a position at a huge law firm owned by one of his partner's old associates named George Pierce (The Killing of a Sacred Deer
's Colin Farrell). Out of his comfort zone for the first time in his career, Roman is dragged into the darkened underbelly of the Los Angeles legal world.
Contrary to what the name (and that synopsis) might suggest, Roman J. Israel, Esq. is not simply a John Grisham-esque legal thriller. Written and directed by Dan Gilroy (Nightcrawler
), the story has a firm grounding in the judicial world, but it never gets bogged down with the techno-speak and legalese that hinder many courtroom dramas. Roman does wax on and on about his ideas on plea bargain reform and such, yet he does so in between getting caught up in the high-stakes world of capital murder defenses and monetary corruption. While it never gets as dark and seedy as Nightcrawler
, Roman J. Israel, Esq.
does go to some unsavory places.
Just as he did with Nightcrawler
, Gilroy uses Los Angeles as almost an additional character in the film, and he shows two very different sides of the city. The ivory towered courtrooms and posh office buildings are displayed in stark contrast to the impoverished streets and overcrowded jails. The juxtaposition is never clearer than when Roman trades in his low-rent apartment for a high-priced townhouse once he starts making some real money at Pierce's firm; Roman shuns his street-level, idealistic roots for a taste of the good life, at least temporarily.
The character of Roman finds himself stuck between the temptation of affluence, represented by George Pierce, and the prospect of using his knowledge and experience to help his community, represented by Maya Alston. Neither the devil on one shoulder nor the angel on the other is very persuasive (Maya is very low-pressure about recruiting Roman, while George flip-flops constantly on his decision to bring him aboard), so the conflict is all in Roman's head. And that's where Washington shines. He effortlessly communicates volumes of thought and emotion in a single unexpected teardrop or a surprise temper tantrum. Roman J. Israel, Esq.
is not only Denzel Washington at his best, it's Denzel Washington working with the best material.
Roman comes off like a fossil from the seventies, and that's both good and bad. He's a dinosaur in his field, and his ill-fitting suits and bottle-bottom glasses make him look like a dinosaur in fashion, too. His hair however, although equally dated, is a fabulously retro picked-out afro, and he's got impeccable taste in music (more on that later). Once he is forced into fending for himself, he tries to modernize himself (with the exception of the music, because why would he want to change that?), but in a classic case of "money changes everything," he's not completely satisfied with the results.
So, essentially, what Roman J. Israel, Esq.
boils down to is a character study of a man trying to find his place in the world long after he should have had it solidified. His sheltered existence within the safety of a legal practice in which he was the "guy behind the guy" is shattered and he calmly panics while trying to cope. But no one can calmly panic quite like Denzel Washington, especially when he does it in Los Angeles and to a grooving seventies soundtrack.
The title character in Roman J. Israel, Esq.
constantly listens to music, either on his original iPod or on the vintage hi-fi system in his apartment, and the audience is treated to his flawless taste in 70s soul and R&B. Denzel Washington and Dan Gilroy hand-picked the songs in the film based on what would fit the character, and each funky groove is locked in tight. At one point, Roman gets mugged to the sounds of Funkadelic's "Cosmic Slop." When Roman takes a trip to the beach to get away from the bustling city, The Chambers Brothers' "Time Has Come Today" comes through his headphones. Songs by Marvin Gaye, Bill Evans Trio, and The Spinners round out the awesome soundtrack. There's even a new song by Donald Glover (performing as Childish Gambino) which fits right in with the old school tracks. Oscar nominated composer James Newton Howard (The Hunger Games
) contributes a bunch of seventies style incidental music that provides seamless transitions as well. In a world in which Baby Driver
doesn't exist, Roman J. Israel, Esq.
would have the soundtrack of the year. And maybe it still does.