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Denzel Washington crusades for justice in “Roman J. Israel, Esq.”

When you’re as big a star as Denzel Washington is, you pretty much have your pick of the litter, project wise. As such, when a curveball is thrown by the actor, it’s worth noting. This week, Washington tackles something very different with Roman J. Israel, Esq. The film itself struggles, but Washington will be the focus. In fact, it wouldn’t be a surprise at all if Oscar decides that it’s worth yet another Best Actor nomination for the man. That will be the main curiosity here, as Washington always finds himself in contention, especially when it’s a showcase for his acting like this one seeks to be.

This movie combines elements of a character study with elements of a legal thriller. In short, it follows title character Roman J. Israel (Washington) as he attempts to crusade for what’s right. A relic of the past to most, he sees his world upended when his law firm partner passes and he makes a rare financially motivated decision…going to work for George Pierce (Colin Farrell). With the glitzy world of expensive defense law showing him a “better” life, he also has the conscious of Maya Alston (Carmen Ejogo) in his head. The decisions he makes are ones best left for you to discover, but they come at a definite cost. Dan Gilroy writes and directs, with Hugo Armstrong, Sam Gilroy, Amanda Warren, and more in the cast. Sibling John Gilroy edits, while the score is by James Newton Howard, and the cinematography comes from Robert Elswit.

The film is a mixed bag. It has moments that serve Washington really well, while others just make you scratch your head. As good as Washington is at creating a sympathetic and yet not wholly likable character, he struggles with some of Roman’s quirks. At least part of that issue rests of Gilroy’s direction, but not entirely. Still, most of the shortcomings here are because Gilroy’s screenplay is all over the place. In not fully committing to his flick being one specific thing, it sort of becomes nothing in the end. Washington saves the day, overall, but it’s not a clean victory. Still, it should have him in play for another Best Actor nomination. He’s an Academy favorite, after all.

A very targeted Academy Award campaign for Roman J. Israel, Esq. should bear some fruit. Really, it will begin and end with Washington in Best Actor. Sony might get bold and try for Best Picture, Best Director (for Gilroy), Best Supporting Actor (for Farrell), Best Supporting Actress (for Ejogo), Best Original Screenplay (also for Gilroy), Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, and Best Original Score, but those are long shots. The Best Actor race has space in it for another legend, so Washington will be in the thick of it. Currently, I have him just outside of the top five, but if he scores on the precursor circuit, watch out for him to slip in once again.

Here is how I would rank Washington’s ten best performances to date:

10. Roman J. Israel, Esq.
9. Inside Man
8. The Siege
7. Flight
6. Training Day
5. He Hot Game
4. Fences
3. Malcolm X
2. The Hurricane
1. Philadelphia

Starting on Friday, Washington fans can see him compete for another Academy Award nomination while also tackling something new when Roman J. Israel, Esq. opens up. If you’re a fan of Washington, it seems like a safe bet that you’ll at least be curious to see what he’s doing here, beyond the Oscar chatter. Gilroy fans though, especially if you’re expecting another Nightcrawler, are likely to be let down. It’s very much the Denzel show, when it comes to successes here. Give it a look and see how it stacks up for you, and stay tuned to see how Washington does during the precursor season…

Be sure to check out Roman J. Israel, Esq., in theaters everywhere this weekend!

About Joey Magidson

A graduate of Stony Brook University (where he studied Cinema and Cultural Studies), resides in Brooklyn, New York. He contributes to several other film-related websites and is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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