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‘Roman J. Israel, Esq.’ review: Muddled, misguided legal drama

Denzel Washington stars in

Denzel Washington stars in "Roman J. Israel, Esq." Credit: Sony Pictures

PLOT An idealistic lawyer joins a high-powered criminal defense firm.

CAST Denzel Washington, Colin Farrell, Carmen Ejogo

RATED PG-13 (language)

LENGTH 2:09

BOTTOM LINE A clever, quirky performance by Washington goes to waste in this muddled and misguided drama.

Denzel Washington plays the title role in “Roman J. Israel, Esq.,” a lawyer inspired by the great heroes of the civil rights era. With an Afro modeled on Bayard Rustin’s and an iPod full of Gil Scott-Heron, Israel traipses around Los Angeles defending poor clients for the rate of $500 a week, happy to live in poverty if it means serving a greater good. When his small firm suddenly closes, Israel goes to work for high-priced attorney George Pierce (Colin Farrell), whose morals take a back seat to money.

It sounds like a great setup, especially considering that the writer-director is Dan Gilroy, who delved into similar terrain with the excellent “Nightcrawler” (2014), about the murky ethics of local television news. That film was about an amoral cameraman who settles comfortably into the cesspool, while “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” is about an idealist forced to cope in a materialist world. Israel would be a hero worth rooting for, but for one problem: By the movie’s end, he seems like the villain.

Initially, Washington is quite likable as a crusading malcontent with a galumphing gait, oversize glasses and the mind of a legal savant. We feel for Israel when the young activists at a nonprofit run by Maya Alston (Carmen Ejogo) snicker at his fusty tweed suit and return his old-fashioned chivalry with cries of sexism. (To paraphrase Robert Anton Wilson, it only takes a generation to make a liberal feel like a conservative.) At Pierce’s shiny law firm, Israel is an out-of-place relic from the hippie-dippie days.

You’ll be hoping Israel will stick to his guns, refuse temptation and risk everything to uncover the truth about Pierce. None of that happens. Instead, in a fit of misguided rage, Israel resorts to some truly base behavior. He breaks not only moral but legal codes, and winds up hurting innocent people. It’s an odd series of events, made odder when the seemingly slippery Pierce turns out to be — surprise! — a fairly decent guy with a hidden noble streak.

What happened here? Why did this movie flip its hero and its villain? And how were we expected to feel about it? Despite Washington’s best efforts, “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” feels like it was named after the wrong character.

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