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Blu-ray Review: Roman J. Israel, Esq.

February 20, 2018

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

At the start of Roman J. Isreal, Esq., the title character (Denzel Washington) is drafting a criminal case against himself that would have him disbarred from practising law, which he plans on defending and prosecuting himself.  The film then jumps back in time to show us the series of events that led to him making this decision.

Roman J. Israel is a brilliant but socially awkward defence attorney and civil rights activist in Los Angeles, who has spent several decades working mostly behind the scenes at the same firm, but is left out in the cold after his partner has a heart attack.  Roman ends up being brought in by George Pierce (Colin Farrell), a slick and ruthless lawyer who puts him on a criminal case, that leads him down a path that threatens to derail his entire career.

The second film directed by screenwriter Dan Gilroy, following his stunning 2014 debut Nightcrawler, Roman J. Isreal, Esq. is a gripping legal thriller, that keeps us engaged thanks to a fine script and an excellent lead performance.  Denzel Washington is mesmerizing to watch in the title role, brilliantly portraying a character who appears to be on the autism spectrum, often embarrassing himself in social situations while also maintaining a sort of stringent idealism in the work that he does.  It’s no surprise that the actor got his eighth Oscar nomination for his work here.

The film has a somewhat offbeat tone, oscillating between legal drama, crime thriller, and even having moments of eccentric character comedy.  But this constantly shifting tone matches the title character himself, who is constantly at odds with the world around him.  Although set in modern times, the film has a 1970s look and feel to it, emboldened by Roman’s out of date three-piece suits and his oversized glasses, instantly showing us that this character is averse, or maybe clueless, to change.  It’s literally like he is stuck in a different era, unsure of how to adapt to the modern world.

​I actually liked this film quite a bit more than I expected to, especially after the disappointing reception that it initially got at TIFF.  It’s an intriguing work that is bolstered by one of the best performances of last year.  Roman himself is a fascinating figure, a man with no apparent family who has chosen to forgo interpersonal relationships in favour of his career, and now risks having it all fall apart due to a single bad decision.  The story keeps us intrigued to see where it will go next, but Denzel Washington is the real reason to see this film.  It’s his film through and through, and he is gripping to watch.

The Blu-ray also includes a selection of deleted scenes and the three featurettes Denzel Washington: Becoming Roman, The Making of Roman J. Isreal, Esq., and Colin Farrel: Discovering George.

Roman J. Israel, Esq. is a Sony Pictures Home Entertainment release.  It’s 122 minutes and rated PG.

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