Roman J. Israel, Esq. is one hot mess of a movie. It’s Dan Gilroy’s followup to his debut Nightcrawler, which was one of the best movies of the last few years. This, however, is not: Denzel Washington plays the title character, a driven, idealistic defense attorney whose boss has a heart attack and ends up in a coma. Israel also has a past—once upon a time he was a radical. He’s now working for a small law firm in Los Angeles, but mostly behind the scenes. When that changes, it all goes wrong for him. George Pierce (Colin Farrell) is next in line to take charge, and plans to shut down the firm because it’s not viable. He offers Israel a job with his bigger firm, which he only takes after a disastrous interview with a local activist group.
The plot, as the above synopsis indicates, is highly convoluted, and also feels like it was completely rejuggled after its initial screening at the Toronto Film Festival. It was cut by at least a dozen minutes and an entire sub-plot was removed, but it’s hard to say if that was an improvement. It definitely went through some very radical cuts: Farrell’s character was brought from the third act to the middle, for example.
Washington’s character is quite an oddball, a misfit who is almost a savant. He dresses like an early 70s university professor (Stuart Hall to be precise), and has for years been working on a massive legal brief that he hopes will reform the criminal law plea bargaining system. There’s also a love interest subplot with Maya, one of the activists (Carmen Ejogo). Washington appears with his real gap teeth (normally corrected with caps).
Israel has a sort of existential crisis for the last quarter of the film. He encounters challenges to his idealism that he struggles to cope with. Washington is always good and he’s fantastic in the role. Nobody saw the film when it came out during award season, although it’s the kind of performance that attracted Oscar attention in the form of a Best Actor nomination. Farrell plays a slightly sleazy lawyer, and it’s a bit of a waste of his talents because he can do it in his sleep although he’s fine in the part.
If you didn’t know it was by Gilroy, you would be shocked to find out—it doesn’t have the brilliance of Nightcrawler. It does have an interesting (if badly mangled) story that was overwritten to start with but suffered more because the filmmakers didn’t have much time to edit the final release. Although it has a very committed performance by Washington, and there are moments when the legal drama is good, it just doesn’t quite hold together. Unfortunately, the editing also puts some plot holes in the film.
The disc includes a lot of deleted scenes—as you might expect—a general making-of and a second featurette that focuses on Washington’s role.