HOLLYWOOD,CA-What to make of the Roman J. Israel, Esq. drama is just as complex as the move itself. Better yet, let’s start with the leading character that the astute Denzel Washington plays to annoying perfection. First, this is not the suave and intimidating Washington we’ve seen in American Gangster.
So expecting to see Washington as this save-the day hero that we’ve been spoiled to watching on the big screen has been totally thrown out of the window in Roman J. Israel, Esq. Instead, what we get is a stumbling, narcissistic law whiz who doesn’t even have the wherewithal to physically defend himself against a would-be robber.
All the while you’re watching Roman J. Israel, Esq. (at least I was), the hope for that one Denzel moment never materializes. So you think. The beauty of seeing Washington work in Roman J. Israel, Esq. is to watch a master at his craft fully develop into a character unlike themselves and bring them to life.. Most people are used to seeing a cool, charming Denzel Washington.
Better luck next time because that’s not what you’re getting in Dan Gilroy’s feature film. Screening at the AFI Film Festival (AFI Fest), Roman J. Israel, Esq. presents Washington in an unfiltered, worn-out way. The clothes he wears are outdated. He walks around the streets of Los Angeles carrying an oversized duffle bag as if he is chugging along all of his life’s possessions in it.
But it’s his throwback 1970s afro that suggests more than anything that Washington’s character is in a bit of a time warp. Time seemed to have moved past Israel on the social level as relationship ties have dried up. The closest Israel gets to anyone is with local community activist Maya Alston (played wonderfully by Carmen Ejogo), whom he vibes with as he touts his involvement in the quest for social justice.
Maya provides Israel with an escape to a simple life that he yearns for. It’s too bad he does not find his way to that secret place. Whatever quirky nuances of social awkwardness that accompanies Israel, Maya, for a brief period, levels him out with her calm, curious manner. Then there’s Israel’s boss of the law firm that he works for, Colin Farrell, a straight-shooter who gives his subordinate little wiggle room to screw up.
Somehow, someway, Israel does screw up. In a moment of self-preservation and doing the wrong thing, Israel decides to cash in by collecting reward money on a criminal suspect by breaching his ethical responsibilities as an attorney. It is a big-time mental collapse by a man driven by the moral compass he has ingrained into his practice as a lawyer.
The reward money that he thought he would enjoy turns out to be short-lived. Israel begins to live the life of a hotshot lawyer, going uptown to a new loft in downtown Los Angeles, which is a world apart from his previous putrid living conditions. The new suits he buys makes him look respectable enough to his professional colleagues.
The afro is turned into a slick-back version of the wave-curl. However, Israel’s consciousness comes back into focus, no matter how cleaned up he becomes. That’s because clarity on what he did wrong comes in the form of a client that he is charged to represent, setting in motion a chain of events that will soon equalize the error of his ways.
Roman J. Israel, Esq. is a man who plays by the rules. He’s not a rebel. He’s no troublemaker. If anything, Israel is about as law-abiding a citizen as they come. But he makes a fatal calculation when he decides to step out from under the protective umbrella of his ethical attorney duties by trying to outsmart the system. And that puts him squarely in harm’s way.
Washington has done other legal-type films like The Pelican Brief and Philadelphia on his long resume of film and television credits. In those two movies, Washington was regal defined. He is quite opposite of those characters in Roman J. Israel, Esq. Israel carries himself like a guy living on the fringe of society.
Doing Roman J. Israel, Esq. was a different beast for Washington. Washington has always had success in bringing his characters to life. By portraying Israel, a part specifically written for him, Gilroy admitted, Washington transforms from the iconic thespian that he is to a very ordinary man, a gentle soul just looking for his lot in life. Wherever that takes him is where he’ll find the happiness he’s been looking for.