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Denzel Delivers a Positive Verdict for Roman J. Israel, Esq.

Denzel Delivers a Positive Verdict for <i>Roman J. Israel, Esq.</i>

You've never seen Denzel Washington like this. Washington stakes his claim as a major Best Actor Oscar contender for his performance as quietly crusading lawyer Roman J. Israel. It's a pleasure to watch the unkempt, sometimes off-putting Israel work through his self-inflicted moral dilemma. 4 out of 5.


Roman J. Israel (Washington) toils behind-the-scenes for a Los Angeles lawyer who argues cases before the court. When his mentor dies, Israel is set adrift, unable to schmooze and socialize in the way Los Angeles lawyers do to get ahead and stay on top. He's eventually brought on board the legal team of George Pierce (Colin Farrell), a friend of the deceased man and someone who considers Israel "a bit of a savant." At the prodding of Pierce, Israel begins to work better with others and come out of his shell, pursuing a relationship with Maya (Carmen Ejogo), who appreciates Israel's crusading nature and passion for civil rights. When a foolish decision by Israel threatens to undo the acceptance he's gained among his co-workers, he works through the ramifications and costs of coming clean to Pierce—and to himself.

What Works?

This is Washington's show, and he delivers, playing a dumpy, socially inept (but, in some ways, brilliant) lawyer. There's nary a flash of Washington's winning smile and usual charm. Rather, the actor makes us feel most of the surrounding characters' discomfort with Israel, until we, like they, want to better understand him.

What Doesn't?

Washington and writer/director Dan Gilroy have pitched the story to Christian audiences, but while the film's moral dimension and tension are well realized, their resolution leaves a bit to be desired. It’s good to do the right thing, but doing so for the right reasons is important. Does Israel feel any calling higher than the one within himself? If not, will any change in his character and outlook be more than fleeting? These may not be questions all viewers will ask, but surely those whose morality is grounded in something beyond themselves will wonder about the source of Israel's resoluteness.

Christian Worldview Elements / Spiritual Themes

Israel is portrayed as a crusader for justice who lives out the saying, "Each of us is greater than the worst thing we've done." When one civil rights worker calls Israel a freak, he's told that he stands on the shoulders of men like Israel. Each one of us is said to be an agent of change, and Israel says that our real enemies aren't on the outside but within. Humans are said to be in need of forgiveness for their frailty, and a man of the cloth at a funeral says the arc of the moral universe is long and that it bends toward justice.

CAUTIONS (may contain spoilers)

  • MPAA Rating: PG-13 for language and some violence
  • Language/Profanity: Lord's name taken in vain; several uses of foul language, including the f- word; "potential's a bi-ch"; Israel is told that he can always be counted on to "say the utterly inappropriate thing."
  • Sexuality/Nudity: A brief kiss.
  • Violence/Crime: Israel represents defendants in criminal cases, but he becomes compromised by a poor decision and is accused of breaking his own law by one of his clients; sound of a gunshot.
  • Drugs/Alcohol: Israel defends an accused drug dealer before the court; a comment about the ability of alcohol to help one cope.

The Bottom Line

RECOMMENDED FOR: Fans of Washington can look forward to one of his many great performances, although the overall film, while good, falls short of the greatness of its lead actor. The 1960s/70s soul and jazz soundtrack is well chosen, adding texture to Israel's character, who has a substantial record collection and is often shown listening to music through headphones.

NOT RECOMMENDED FOR: The film is too mature for younger audiences, and its conclusion doesn't pop in the way the best dramas do. The conclusion is satisfying on a number of levels, but doesn't quite deliver the emotional uplift of the most satisfying moral stories.

Roman J. Israel, Esq., directed by Dan Gilroy, opens in limted theaters November 17, 2017, wide November 22. It runs 129 minutes and stars Denzel Washington, Colin Farrell, Carmen Ejogo, Amanda Warren and Hugo Armstrong. Watch the trailer for Roman J. Israel, Esq. here.

Christian Hamaker brings a background in both Religion (M.A., Reformed Theological Seminary) and Film/Popular Culture (B.A., Virginia Tech) to his reviews. He still has a collection of more than 100 laserdiscs, and for DVDs patronizes the local library. Streaming? What is this "streaming" of which you speak? He'll figure it out someday. Until then, his preferred viewing venue is a movie theater. Christian is happily married to Sarah, a parent coach and author of Hired@Home and Ending Sibling Rivalry.

Publication date: November 22, 2017

Image courtesy: ©Columbia(Sony)