One year ago (2016), we were extolling the performances in Densel Washington's film adaptation of "Fences". He gave his usual strong performance that complimented Viola Davis' Oscar winning performance as his wife. It would up being Denzel's seventh time being nominated for acting, though he lost out to Casey Affleck's performance in "Manchester by the Sea".


There won't be too many times that Denzel will be the second best thespian in a film - which is a testament to Davis' performance. Now we get Washington in a film directed by Dan Gilroy who gave us the overlooked "Nightcrawler" a couple of years ago. Like "Nightcrawler", Gilroy both wrote and directed "Roman J. Israel, ESQ." After success writing "Kong: Skull Island", "The Bourne Legacy" and the visually breathtaking "The Fall", many of us kinda expected a rock solid story to go with Washington's acting.


Instead we got a story with Denzel's rock solid acting valiantly trying to keep the story afloat. He presents a somewhat complex character with a couple of thin layers in a story that doesn't quite give us someone to root for.

Washington plays Roman Israel, a socially inept but info accurate attorney in a small civil rights/criminal law firm. He dos the research and prepares the case, the senior partner Henry takes the case to trial. It is a formula that has worked well for them, though not monetarily. In fact, the firm is in the hole, being financially supported by Henry's well-to-do family.


We learn all this fairly early in the film because Henry has a medical emergency that leaves him in a vegetative state. The office manager/secretary Vernita (Lynda Gravatt) tells Roman to get continuances on all the case - not to try the cases himself. He doesn't follow those instructions and finds himself charged with a lightweight contempt of court because he won't shut up.


Ultimately the families plan is to turn all cases over to another lawyer, George Pierce (Colin Farrell), who plans on making some money on the deal. In exchange he agrees to take on Roman doing what Roman had always done - reserch and assembling the cases in his nerdish style. But there is a crisis concerning money and when Roman gets the opportunity to get a windfall of cash, he acts quickly, though completely unethically.


Though it gives him a substantial lifestyle upgrade, it turns out to put his new law firm at risk. It also sets the stage for him to lose the newfound relationship he develops with a goody-two-shoe civil rights advocate (Carmen Ejogo). He goes against everything that he previously believed in.


Throughout the story, we are introduced to several incomplete characters who seem to appear and stand on the sidelines waiting for relevancy. Farrell's character has an opportunity to be a money grubbing capitalist, but he comes up short on the greed meter. Ejogo's character makes a half-ass romantic move that stalls and is never lustful enough. Two of Roamn's criminal clients make a faint effort to be tough guys but also come up short with generic threats. Even Washington's Roman doesn't come off as a clear savant as he makes clear decisive movements.


Yet the film is watchable if only because you find yourself waiting for the completion of the characters. It never happens; instead you get interesting performances that go nowhere.


"Roman J. Israel, ESQ." is a well-acted, well cast, disappointment of a film. Denzel Washington does what he does best and delivers a terrific, dialogue rich performance that nearly saves a floundering story.   -- GEOFF BURTON