Roman J. Israel, Esq.

If you could imagine Denzel Washington playing the Rain Man of law then you will probably like this.

  • Screenplay by Dan Gilroy (Kong: Skull Island, Nightcrawler)
  • Directed by Dan Gilroy (Nightcrawler)
  • Starring Denzel Washington (The Hurricane, Fences, American Gangster)
  • Budget of $22m


Initial Thoughts 💭

Directed by Dan Gilroy (Nightcrawler), the enigmatic Denzel Washington plays a complex lawyer who grows “tired of doing the impossible for the ungrateful.” Rather than fighting for others he begins to fight for himself but ultimately his decisions and the direction of the film makes for very frustrating viewing.

The ‘ccc’ review💭

Roman J Israel Esq (Denzel Washington) is a socially awkward man who possesses a brilliant memory as a defence lawyer, who after 27 years, loses his job. After initially rejecting the offer from top lawyer (Colin Farrell) to rekindle his dream to be an activist lawyer, he finally accepts due to his poor financial situation. What follows is a series of decisions that have major consequences as Roman is pulled into a world of money and deceit….and major consequences for the narrative of the film.

It was actually quite difficult to sum up this film in the above paragraph without revealing too much and probably not doing the film justice. But this is where our frustration is derived. Did it want to be about helping people to a fair trial (how it begins), about Denzels conflict with himself (the middle) or a crime thriller (how it ends)…..and I haven’t even mentioned the underlying romance. Argh!!!

The film opens with Mr Roman J Israel Esq writing and narrating a legal brief as the prosecutor against the defendant….himself! – for breaking the laws against humanity. The film then reverts to three weeks earlier to the beginnings of his charge. We are introduced to the flawed but brilliant titled character.

After being laid off, Roman goes back to pursuing his dream of fighting the legal system. When he fails to obtain a paid job for a civil rights organisation (mainly because they rely on volunteers), Washington delivers such an immense speech you really are moved and believe in him that he can help deal with the worlds injustices. As Carmen Ejogo’s character Maya says after Roman walks off after his passionate speech “you stand on his shoulders”, and at that moment in the film you really are. I really felt that the film would then explore the subject matter further regarding social justice and deliver a powerful message to the audience…..unfortunately it did not.

The film then becomes increasingly frustrating and there is a noticeable dip in quality. From showing a strong belief in doing the right thing, Roman J Israel begins to make irrational and odd decisions that are the opposite to his character. You could argue that recent events triggered his spiral but it does comes across a bit too forced. The film does regain control in the final moments by which point it has become a crime thriller – completely unrecognisable from the start.

Obviously the star attraction of the film is Denzel Washington. Many actors have tried the ‘Rainman’ type role made famous by Dustin Hoffman with success and Washington adds to this list. We are drawn in by his desperate emotion and difficulty to be comfortable in interactions with other people. Ultimately Washington has too much swagger to play this sort of role and you feel he is capable of much more but he still committed to the character – being completely unrecognisable from the roles he normally plays.

Carmen Ejogo plays an activist lawyer who is inspired by Roman J Israel, although the on-screen relationship seems one way as Roman can hardly show any acknowledgement of her adoration. Then Colin Farrell, a lawyer who once wanted to make real change but now runs a successful law firm, offers some support but his concerns never feel genuine.

Fun Fact – Just in case you are wondering, note that Esq stands for Esquire which is mostly used to denote a lawyer in the US but in the UK was historically used to describe a person above the rank of gentleman but below the rank of knight.

Final Thoughts 💭

At the end of the film you can’t help but think that the filmmakers missed a real opportunity to have the great Denzel Washington send a message which resonates with today’s struggle of legal injustice and social activism. The thriller/legal system/personal conflict story doesn’t really work and it’s a shame they don’t really utilise Denzel. The story could have done with some refining.

📺🤨Recommended if you love Denzel Washington, but even the best fans will struggle to enjoy the film in its entirety.

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