Writer/director Dan Gilroy’s ROMAN J. ISRAEL is a film that tries very hard to be perfect, just as its subject, ROMAN J. ISRAEL, ESQ (Denzel Washington) tries to be. But perfection is a state that is almost impossible to achieve with regards to the film and its subject, and this point comes clear at the end of the film. Which is a shame considering writer/director Gilroy’s noble intentions.
The film begins with a document in the making, with a plaintiff and defendant named the same person Roman J. Israel, Esq. The film flashbacks three years earlier to explain how this state of affairs comes to be.
Gilroy introduces his man, Israel as a noble man, but one that is not respected by many as this is a man not of the world, but of humbler means but with proud aspirations. He works in a small law firm with his partner taking on small cases that matter in terms of human rights and fairness. The partner does all the court appearances while Israel all the ground work. When his partner, the firm’s front man, has a heart attack, Israel suddenly takes on that role. He finds out some unsettling things about what the crusading law firm has done that run afoul of his values of helping the poor and dispossessed, and he finds himself in an existential crisis that leads to extreme action.
Into the his world arrives two people that make a difference. One is Maya (Carmen Ejogo) who looks up to him and who he eventually falls in love with. The other is the head of a well established and successful law firm, Arthur (Colin Farrell) whom his partner taught and inspired in law school. Arthur takes Israel in, hoping to find his conscience that he has almost lost in the world of business and law.
What stands out in this incredible story is Roman’s downfall. Like any other man, he is tempted by the good life. Roman takes a bite of the apple in the garden of Eden. The apple arrives in the reward money Roman quietly takes from one of his cases. And he is found out.
A lot of the film rests on Oscar Winner Denzel Washington’s performance. Roman is the main subject who is in almost every scene. Roman not only undergoes a character change once but twice from good to bad and to good again. The character also undergoes a rites-of-passage where he learns about life itself. But the surprise and prized performance comes from Colin Farrell. Farrell douses his unkempt and portly appearance he donned in THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER and THE LOBSTER to reveal a sexy business executive, a Mr. Perfect looking sharp and sexy in his perfectly tailored suits and groomed hair. He finally shows his transition from action actor to star commanding the screen presence in this film so magnificently.
One wishes ROMAN the film would have come out more powerful. The main problem is the film aiming too high. A classic movie arrives with minor flaws, some dull parts and surprises just as what life dishes out. Gilroy’s ROMAN J. ISRAEL, entertaining though it may be, is just too meticulously planned.