The writer/director Dan Gilroy's Roman J. Israel, Esq. is quite fearlessly obvious, a character piece about precisely what it announces in its opening seconds. The film opens in a fit of melodrama, with Washington's Israel -- a stammering, on-the-spectrum revolutionary committed to low-paying legal work despite a certain jurisprudential genius -- typing up a legal brief indicting himself for the crime of selling out.
Then, unpromisingly, Gilroy flashes to weeks earlier, to Israel's last days as the bookish, office-bound partner in a progressive law firm run by a crusading defense attorney. Often, when a storyteller begins at the point the story will eventually build to, and then doubles back in time, I fear that we're being told trust us, this will get interesting eventually. Here, the case is the opposite: Israel's daily life is more interesting than the dramatic stuff to come.
In his downtown Los Angeles apartment, he cranks up Pharoah Sanders records to blast out the construction of the luxury lofts next door. At work, he's dedicated to prepping a suit that he believes could forever change the system of unjust sentencing.
In short, this guy is interesting, and you might hope that Gilroy has dreamed up a case worth his time and attention. Instead, Israel gets cast out of his rut and stripped of his certainties. So, he sells out. The movie -- already quite glum -- becomes vague, sometimes even listless. Israel takes a job at a firm run by a sharpie played by Colin Farrell. Washington's quiet performance tends to reveal the jittery surface rather than the tortured soul; neither it nor the script is incisive enough to make Israel's abandonment of his principles fascinating.