Writer-director Dan Gilroy made one of the most dazzling debuts in years with 2014’s ‘Nightcrawler’, a deliciously soulless black comedy about a TV bottom-feeder (Jake Gyllenhaal) whose power and influence increase the more viciously amoral he becomes. Flipping the script unsuccessfully, Gilroy follows up with a story about a throwback do-gooder who’s decidedly out of sync with today’s ethics-free lawyerscape. Making a meal out his character’s repertoire of verbal and physical tics, Denzel Washington plays the tunnel-visioned title hero, a Los Angeles attorney and a relic of the fist-in-the-air 1960s who’s never been good with people but possesses an encyclopedic mind for research. He honks out responses in endless speeches, doesn’t own a car and lives a lonely existence eating peanut-butter sandwiches and listening to vinyl.
The guy deserves his own television show, or at least a screenplay that understands we should ultimately be in a courtroom, where Roman’s cranky Columbo-like pronouncements coalesce into unlikely wisdom. But Gilroy fumbles the set-up badly: after Roman’s protective law partner falls into a coma, the firm is set to be dissolved by a corporate-minded hatchet man (Colin Farrell with slicked-back hair) who nonetheless sees the value in retaining this weird office fixture with no social skills. The tension between them never really develops the way you want it to: where are the ethical fireworks of ‘The Verdict’ or ‘…And Justice for All’?
Predictably, Roman is uncomfortable selling out, even as he takes some private reward money and buys a few new suits. The movie can’t bring itself to push its central iceberg of a character into properly hot water – which is too bad because that’s exactly where Washington thrives.