Hot Take: If you enjoy Denzel Washington’s acting (Are there people who don’t?), Roman J. Israel, Esq. is almost a must see. Better acting performance than movie with Washington carrying the load here.
For his directorial debut, writer Dan Gilroy made a splash with Nightcrawler in 2014. Before Nightcrawler, most of Gilroy’s writing credits were co-writing credits and the list wasn’t overly impressive unless Freejack, Real Steel and The Bourne Legacy piqued your interest. Gilroy received accolades for his directorial work on Nightcrawler (and an Oscar nomination for his screenplay) which brought some interest around what his next directorial effort would be. Enter Roman J. Israel, Esq., a character-driven story about a Los Angeles attorney with social disorders who spent years behind the scenes at a small law firm but is thrust into the limelight when the face of the firm has a heart attack. Played expertly by Denzel Washington, Israel is an interesting but uneven character study featuring a story that doesn’t quite live up to the character created by Gilroy and brought to life by Denzel. It’s comparable to last year’s Miss Sloane in that the best thing about the film is the star who breathes life into the character unlike almost any other actor or actress can. Washington and Miss Sloane star Jessica Chastain have a lot in common in that way as they can take a mediocre film and elevate its status. It’s hard to imagine Washington working with any other actor once you see the film and inhale Washington’s performance.
Unfortunately, Washington has to work his ass off to keep this story together. It’s a testament to his talent how well Roman J. Israel, Esq. works. Following Israel’s path, the film occasionally drifts story-wise but has one constant and that’s Washington’s masterful performance. It’s a testament to an incredible career and Denzel is must see cinema for any film aficionado. It’s hard to think of a film he’s made (maybe 1998’s The Siege?), that wasn’t at least better than mediocre and even The Siege was elevated by Washington’s presence. There isn’t a more consistent actor in the business than Washington as even a performer like Tom Hanks has some real duds (A Hologram for the King anyone?) on his resume.
Likening Washington to Chastain is more personal as she’d be the actress I’d name first as the one I’d want to see in a film I know was not going to be great but centered around a single character and he’d be the actor. They both have proven to be able to carry a film and take something average or even less than average and elevate it to above average. Beyond Washington, Roman J. Israel, Esq. features a solid performance from Colin Ferrell as the head of a big time law firm who retains Israel’s services and Carmen Ejogo whose resume in supporting roles is growing including a busy 2017 with It Comes At Night and Alien: Covenant also on her resume.
It’s pretty much all about Washington though. It is one of those performances that when you imagine someone else in the role, the film becomes instantly worse and while I’m sure there are a few actors that could have made it work, it feels like Denzel was the best choice for the job. The movie is nowhere near as good as Washington’s performance and on the off chance you’re not a fan (Is that really a thing?), there’s really nothing worth seeing for you (Again, is that a thing?) Gilroy does enough as director here to at least establish that Nightcrawler wasn’t a fluke and the directorial work is slightly better than the writing here as the biggest problem with Roman J. Israel, Esq. is a story that is a solid character study but essentially a flawed story at its core that never quite establishes an identity until its too late and even when it does, you’re confused about where it started to take you because we never find our way back. If you go, it’s to marvel at the excellence of Washington’s ability to bring a character to life and nothing else. There are worse reasons to go to the movie, though.
“Spoiler Free” Pros
- Dynamite Denzel
I think the previous paragraphs cover it enough that you know what I’m referring to here.
- Excellent Soundtrack and Score
Israel listens to an iPod throughout the film and that gives Gilroy an excuse to pepper the film with classic R&B. In addition to the songs in the film, James Newton Howard composes a very good score that resonates throughout the movie.
“Spoiler Free” Cons
- Usually the First Act Means More
A lot happens in the first act that is simply there for character development but never has any real bearing on the rest of the film. You could miss the first 30 minutes of the film and it would take almost no time for you to catch up.
While it showcases Washington’s brilliance, there are times where Roman J. Israel, Esq. unnecessarily goes off on a tangent not exactly related to the film and creates a muddled film experience. My guess is somewhere in the middle of the film, you’ll lose interest in the story and just focus on Washington’s character.