Review: Roman J. Israel Esq

This was previously reviewed as part of our TIFF 2017 coverage.

PLOT: A legal savant (Denzel Washington), who’s dead broke after years of fighting for civil rights, is lured to work in a big law firm.

REVIEW: ROMAN J. ISRAEL, ESQ., was a last minute addition to this year’s TIFF lineup, with only one still image and a very vague plot description to give us any clues as to what kind of movie director Dan Gilroy (NIGHTCRAWLER) had put together. A sprawling legal melodrama, ROMAN J. ISRAEL, ESQ., follows in the tradition of great lawyer movies like AND JUSTCE FOR ALL, MICHAEL CLAYTON and THE VERDICT, and offers star Denzel Washington a rare opportunity to vanish completely into a part.

Without a doubt, Washington is one of the great actors of our lifetime, but he’s so iconic that at this point we go see Denzel movies to watch him be Denzel. His films are unique, but he typically doesn’t stray too far from his persona, but in this one he goes deep into a part that calls on him to obscure his suave good looks with a large afro, huge eyeglasses and rumpled, three piece suits that are about thirty years (or more) out of fashion.

We get from the outset that Israel is likely on the autistic spectrum, with his patron, a famous civil rights litigator, paying him to do the day-to-day legal work and not show up in court – something Israel has no patience for. When his patron has a massive heart attack and the firm shutters, he’s on the verge of being homeless, although he’d still rather continue fighting for the underdog than take on anything else. Yet, having spent thirty years holed up in an office, he’s totally out of step with the volunteers at a kind civil right’s worker’s (Carmen Ejogo) office, being mocked when he urges two men to give up their seat to women, who he calls “sister” in a way they feel is patronizing. This scene is striking, as it’s an unusual thing for us to see Denzel play any part where he’s not ultra brash and confident, and watching him utterly withdraw into himself when challenged shows how deep he really went here.


The movie kicks into high gear once he meets hotshot lawyer George (Colin Farrell), who offers him a place at his firm servicing clients that are paying massive legal fees for the same kind of work he used to do pro-bono. In another movie, George would have been portrayed as diabolical, with Washington a kind of Faustian figure, but that’s not the easy road Gilroy goes down. Rather, George is a perfectly decent guy who’s simply running a business, and Farrell plays him as wholly sympathetic despite the occasional incisive flash of iciness – another neat aspect as in one scene you see him take Denzel down a few pegs. I can’t recall many times Denzel ever allowed himself to play intimidated onscreen, and it’s another example of how Washington’s really trying to do something different here.

As the movie goes on, it becomes clear that this will be a legal drama without any real court time, with Israel’s only real adversary being himself, as he takes a detour down a dark path that allows him some financial comfort for the first time in his life. Israel’s only enemy here is himself, and watching Denzel walk that line when he starts to go wrong is never less than compelling. His performance is utterly unique in his filmography, although many will struggle to accept him in so different a role, no matter how amazing he is.

It’s a strong sophomore effort for Gilroy, sharing a few similarities with NIGHTCRAWLER, such as the Robert Elswit-photography of the seedier parts of L.A often left unexplored in film. However, it’s far less cynical than that, being a kind of morality tale, something those expecting a darker ride should prepare themselves for. While the last act has some issues and gets a little too sentimental, overall ROMAN J. ISRAEL ESQ., is another iconic Denzel Washington movie, and one that seems sure to get him some Oscar attention this fall. It’s nice to see him really sink his teeth into a challenging part, and yet more proof that as far as movie stars go, they don’t come any better.

Review: Roman J. Israel Esq




About the Author

Chris Bumbray began his career with JoBlo as the resident film critic (and James Bond expert) way back in 2007, and he has stuck around ever since, being named editor-in-chief in 2021. A voting member of the CCA and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic, you can also catch Chris discussing pop culture regularly on CTV News Channel.