Denzel Washington is truly a chameleon when it comes to transforming himself into a character. He is a pillar and steady force in the entertainment industry that seems to deliver time and time again.
25 years ago, he delivered an astounding performance as Malcolm X, a portrayal that I still to this day feel he should have won an Oscar for. Now, Washington has transformed himself into Roman J. Israel, Esq.
Roman, a man with a hyper-sensitive brain and an undying determination to help those who can’t help themselves, draws you in from the very beginning of the film. You find yourself rooting for him from the start.
Dan Gilroy wrote and directed this film which squarely puts Washington at the center where several plots are swirling around him. Roman is a dinosaur and only gets to see the inside of a courtroom when his more visible partner, William Henry Jackson aka “The Bulldog” has a heart attack and is incapacitated. He also inadvertently captures the attention of high-powered attorney George Pierce, expertly played by Collin Farrell, who is intrigued by Roman’s knowledge. He is also remotely interested in a big prison reform research project that Roman has been working on for years.
Over the course of a few weeks, Roman’s life changes. He finds himself out of a job and being enticed by the lure of a better life even though it was somewhat born out of necessity. After he trades in one life for another, he starts to feel hypocritical after he meets Civil Rights attorney Maya Alston played by Carman Ejogo who is a fan of Roman’s work and compassion for what had once been his life’s work – helping others.
There seemed to be competing story lines in this movie. Roman J. Israel, Esq. is a legal drama with a hint of romance and activism with a sprinkle of crime. At times it feels long with a lot of details to process and reference later in the movie. Then, there were other story lines that could stand to be developed a little more. For instance, I was ready to follow Roman through the maze of avoiding the ramifications of his actions involving taking some ill-gotten reward money. The consequences for this action was short and not so sweet.
Roman J. Israel, Esq. is a film with a great story line and interesting sub-plots that I wished were developed a little more to round out the narrative and the respectable character portrayed by Denzel Washington. At the end of the day, Roman gets back to “center” but unfortunately, the damage was already done.