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When I saw the preview for Roman J. Israel, I wondered how I had missed this real life Civil Rights lawyer from the front lines of early 70s injustice. I eventually learned the esquire was a fictional character, and despite the outdated fro and retrograde wardrobe, the setting was present day. Even so, the trailer tidbits and performance prove Denzel can still obviously bring it, but no amount of chops, can save all the back and forth this film subjects you to.
Israel is the silent partner of a two-man law firm that subsists on the margins of defending LA’s poor and disenfranchised. He has savant like knowledge in the background, but is forced into court when William suffers a fatal heart attack.
We quickly see why Israel is relegated to strategic jockeying in the safety of his office. Fueled by institutional injustice, he argues with judges, offends district attorneys and condescends to everyone who is not on his exalted wave length.
He also walks the walk when calling it a day. “As for my personal life, at a certain point... I had to decide whether to have a family or career. I couldn't do both. So I stayed on the front lines.”
An Honest Lawyer with Flaws and Big Dreams
Cinematically appealing and heartbreakingly inspiring, but unlike Al Pacino in And Justice for All, his public face does much more harm to his clients than good. Still, you want to believe Roman can reign in the excess and execute his opus on the criminal justice system.
“I am building a wholly original class-action lawsuit... with over 3500 names, all former clients… maimed at the heart of plea-bargain reform. I'm talking about reforming a system where prosecutors...are trying to pull sentences out of their hat. Where guilt or innocence is being completely replaced...by fear of having your day in court, Where people are being forced to plead guilty...under the threat of overly harsh and coercive sentences. It's a job for a legend, or someone who wants to be one,” Denzel delivers without the pretense of a soap box
By comparison, Al Pacino was a pussy.
Nonetheless, Israel has you believing, and the legend Roman pins his aspiration to is George (Colin Farrell), a hot shot defense lawyer who has essentially preyed on the poor for his Armani suits and the perch that would be better suited at a dump.
George also has been called into close down William’s struggling law firm. A former student, he definitely does not appeal to Roman.
But the esquire soon learns that operating a socially conscious law firm comes with costs. George received kickbacks every time he threw a profitable case to William. “You've been untouched by the messy business... of running a small criminal-defense firm,” George lays down the facts of life.
Otherwise, George sees the value of having someone like Roman on his staff. Obviously, though, Denzel doubles down and moves forward with what he knows.
Don’t Know Whether You’re Coming or Going
He takes up with another cause driven firm on a low budget, but the best Maya Alston (Carmen Ejogo) can offer is volunteer work. Since savings is not something Israel is familiar with, he switches to the dark side without any semblance of a segue.
No soul searching, Roman is suddenly at work with George. His cases are morally ambiguous but give enough room for Roman to expedite his social conscious leanings.
Of course, he cannot run away from his failings. Roman's impetuous nature creates a dire predicament and leaves us not knowing whether he’s coming or going. In other words, we are dizzied as Roman goes back and forth between the dark and light like a lost Jedi trying to navigate the force.
George and Maya also struggle to keep up, and once the dust settles, the outcome is way to contrived to care about or believe.