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'Roman J. Israel, Esq.' proves Denzel Washington isn’t slowing down anytime soon

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From Nightcrawler director Dan Gilroy comes “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” Denzel Washington stars as a former civil rights lawyer who is in a state of personal crisis. He slowly realizes that the world is not the same as it was when he was young, and that the legal system still does not favor or always help the less fortunate. These brewing thoughts paired with his internal struggle makes the film an effective and enjoyable critique against modern legal institutions, but people may be turned off by its meandering nature.

Denzel Washington is terrific in the lead role. He plays it more subtly than some of his other works but with a profound sense of urgency nonetheless, allowing us to fully realize the fiery passion that drives Roman to do the right thing. Unfortunately, however, Roman is failed by his peers, society and the legal system that he worked so hard to know and practice. He feels that all his work fighting for civil rights was for nothing, and now that he’s grown old, Roman decides to no longer fight the system but thrive in it, setting off a chain of events that challenges his ideals. Roman’s personal and philosophical struggles are the most effective part of the movie, and what makes the film great.

The movie, formerly titled “Inner City,” also attempts to show us glimpses of the inner workings of societal structure in California, giving snapshots of diverse types of people in a community that relies on the “system” to help them. This brings a nice dose of realism, stressing to audiences that the decisions lawyers, judges, police and other pillars of order in the U.S. impact people’s lives tremendously.

The cinematography by Robert Elswit is beautiful yet subtle, fully bringing California to life. He’s partnered with Gilroy once before on Nightcrawler, revealing sinister aspects of Los Angeles. Here he shoots California as a place that is bright, expansive and at times even overbearing, allowing us to imagine how overwhelmed Roman feels with his surroundings. The music by James Newton Howard is adequate in parts, but disappointingly derivative. It doesn’t feel particularly memorable or unique like one comes to expect from a Howard score.

Colin Farrell and Carmen Ejogo didn’t have much to do, but did a good job nonetheless. Farrell, plays Roman’s new boss. His character’s purpose is to introduce and push Roman into modern law practicing. Ejogo’s character, on the other hand, reveals the grassroots civil rights community that Roman is so inspired by. These two characters mostly move along the plot and act as foils to the main character. The film meanders at times as well, and may feel a bit too long for some people. It’s structured in a way that seems loose, with different things happening in a short span of time. This spontaneous nature could be a strength to some people and detrimental to others as it’s narrative isn’t very cohesive.

That said, people who are invested in Roman and his struggles will come to enjoy “Roman J. Israel Esq.” Denzel somehow finds a way to anchor the film with his award-worthy performance. Any fan of his should watch this not only because of his acting, but because the film is worth watching as well and wrestles with issues that are increasingly relevant to our times.

Grade: B+

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