Roman J. Israel is a lawyer who does his best to never have to go to court. He is a trusted associate of the law firm whose owner goes and argues the cases with Roman's very able assistance. That arrangement changes without warning in Roman J. Israel, Esq., with Denzel Washington starring in the title role. When his employer has a heart attack and soon dies, Israel has to represent the firm's clients. Even though he's advised to request continuances, the idealistic Roman tries to argue until he is cited for contempt of court. After his release, Roman meets fellow lawyer George Pierce (Colin Farrell) by the owner's niece, who announces her intention to shut the firm and hand over the cases to this hand-picked successor. Pierce offers Roman a job, but he initially declines. Israel tests the job market for the sort of law he'd like to practice, but finds no takers. He even visits an advocacy firm that specializes in the law Roman would prefer to practice, only to learn its counsel there, Maya Alston (Carmen Ejogo), volunteers her efforts. She does welcome him, though, to speak to young lawyers about the law and his experiences.
In need of money, Israel accepts Pierce's offer and goes to work for him. He gets off on the wrong foot with Pierce's supervising attorney, Jesse Salinas (Tony Plana), over a joke Roman finds offensive. Roman then gets assigned to represent a man charged with murder in an armed robbery, though he was not the shooter. He knows where Roman can find him in the hope of getting a plea deal and a promise of testimony against the trigger man. Against George's wishes, he calls the prosecutor's office to negotiate a plea deal, and winds up getting the offer withdrawn. George intends to fire Roman, but changes his mind after their client is killed behind bars, and the relative who hired the firm promised not to sue and praised Roman's efforts. His fortunes change once again change when he is mugged, and anonymously uses what he knows to get the killer arrested for the reward money. Meanwhile, Roman settles into George's firm and builds a friendship with Maya while getting more responsibility. He even works on his lifetime project, intended to make defense Somebody, though, knows what Roman did.
Roman J. Israel, Esq. has some ideas that might make a good legal drama. However, writer-director Dan Gilroy makes his sophomore directorial effort (following 2014's Nightcrawler) an unpleasant mess. Gilroy gets off on the wrong foot the minute Roman decides to argue the cases his boss was supposed to do. I also think his boss should have shared his contingency plan with staff rather than have them learn on George's arrival. Israel has an encyclopedic knowledge of California law, but should know better than to try and litigate any case, given his lack of court experience. Also, the man looks and dresses as if it were still forty years ago, when he got his law license. He's definitely held onto his ideals for far too long, and his decision to abandon his ideals for improved finances is contrived. Some who've seen this film believe that Roman is an autistic savant, but I don't buy the autism part. He's merely a savant who doesn't know as much as he thinks. The climax and conclusion are one long cliche. The movie cheats viewers most of all by not telling how Roman proposes to change the legal system with an idea that has more pages than a comprehensive dictionary. Somehow, I don't think a concept with so many pages helps anybody's case load.
I seldom dislike a film with Washington in it, but I consider this role among his lesser appearances on film, Viewers can never really like or sympathize with Roman because he does so much wrong. His ways in the office aren't even consistent. He does use a computer with one long lasting CRT screen, yet he keeps case files in writing. When he doesn't get his way with judges and prosecuting attorneys, he thinks the best course of action is to continue arguing until his opponent has had enough of his nonsense. He, at least, learns how to play nicely once he gets to know George's staff. Farrell performs adequately as George, but he's given little to do besides guide his counselor on the way he wants things run. Ejogo comes across best in the cast as Maya, a lawyer who shares the type of legal interests that Roman has. She appreciates Roman's crusading attitude, but also realizes that a part of her new friend is too deeply rooted in the past.
Roman J. Israel, Esq. is the epitome of the sophomore slump for its director. Nobody disputes that the law doesn't serve the accused equally, but the movie never shows any kind of a solution to the problem. Its main character finds a way to make his clients' matters worse, as well as more prolonged. If this script tells viewers anything, it's that the story of Roman J. Israel is at least a few drafts away from making any sense. In this critics opinion, I find Roman J. Israel, Esq. guilty of being a legal dud.
On a scale of zero to four stars, I give Roman J. Israel, Esq. 1.5 stars. And justice for nobody.