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Roman J. Israel, Esq. (2017)

Roman J Israel 2

Every weapon is a tool if you hold it the right way. Roman J. Israel, Esq. is set in the underbelly of the overburdened Los Angeles criminal court system. Denzel Washington stars as a driven, idealistic defence attorney whose life is upended when his mentor, civil rights icon William Jackson, dies after being in a permanent vegetative state following a heart attack.  Roman has been the backroom boy, a kind of savant talent unaccustomed to the rough and tumble of the courtroom where he immediately gets cited for contempt. He desperately needs money having no recourse to compensation for job loss.  He is recruited to join a firm led by one of the legendary man’s former students – the ambitious George Pierce (Colin Farrell) – and begins a friendship with Maya (Carmen Ejogo) a young champion of equal rights at a community centre but his old-fashioned views drive him out of an activists’ meeting. He is assigned to a case to defend a young black man who apparently assisted a man in the murder of a store worker. Roman receives privileged information about the shooter. What he does with that information turns his life upside down, triggering a turbulent series of events that put the activism that has defined his career to the test... What a freak. Admittedly while being a fan of the hugely talented Dan Gilroy this was a project I was half-dreading. The prospect of the great Denzel in a Black Panther  ‘fro, doing a quasi-autistic act put me right off:  it seemed like an actual throwback, the good guy against The Man. Indeed, his former employer is a hero to the civil rights movement which places this neatly in a time warp. However, from the Gil Scott-Heron soundtrack, literally permitting us entry into Roman’s brain, iPod permanently clamped to his head, this (eventually) sidesteps neatly around expectations in an LA-style shuffle.  It shifts at the midpoint sequence, when Roman takes his newly acquired money and treats himself first to maple turkey donuts (OMG) at the beach and buys some decent suits and Italian shoes to fit into the sleek new workplace. And then he gets a case that turns everything around and that buzzing in his ears isn’t interference, it’s the sound of justifiable paranoia due to inexplicable ethical failure. This is a different kind of LA-based alienation (and conscience) than that explored by Gilroy in Nightcrawler but when it ultimately gains traction (and it takes its sweet time) it’s hard not to like. The bigger plot point is one that is barely dealt with:  his lifelong class action project to defeat the plea bargaining scam that sees disproportionate numbers of black men in prison. Good construction, subtly pitting Roman Vs. George in the final third (and then against himself, in a neat legal argument) makes this a compelling protagonist-antagonist drama with a rather pleasing twist to a story that questions how far idealism can last in a world driven by the need to survive and the guilt that sometimes follows the money, no matter how badly it’s needed. How Roman changes George is the whole point in a strange character study that has echoes of the terrific Michael Tolkin screenplay for Changing Lanes;  how George’s bad guy persona infiltrates Roman’s value system is a sinister aspect defeated by the film’s conclusion which has it both ways.  I am the defendant and the plaintiff simultaneously. I know you get it!

About elainelennon

An occasional movie-watching diary.

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