1. Movies

'Roman J. Israel, Esq.' is a sad waste of Denzel Washington

Denzel Washington stars in "Roman J. Israel, Esq." (Sony Pictures) 1216253
Published Nov. 23, 2017

Denzel Washington's labored portrayal of a shambling legal savant named Roman J. Israel, Esq. is the least of the movie's worries. This is a story of shifting ethics that should be dramatic, but shaky logic prevents that from happening.

Dan Gilroy's follow-up to his bracing 2014 debut Nightcrawler is toothless by comparison, written as detached from reality as his hero. Roman's mouse-click case memory is likely somewhere on the autism spectrum, camouflaged by grumpy old mannerisms. He's stuck in the '70s with shoulder-wide lapels and an Eddie Kendricks ringtone, clinging to Angela Davis' values.

Roman's impersonal demeanor doesn't suit courtrooms. For decades he has been the office-only partner for a renowned Los Angeles civil rights attorney. Now his partner is incapacitated and Roman takes over, doing more than he should. The pattern continues when the firm is taken over by George Pierce (Colin Farrell), the sort of profiteering attorney Roman despises.

It's an interesting departure for Washington, a stretch in a dubious direction from his typically confident characters, even when flawed or challenged. Roman's stooped gait and compulsive tics aren't peculiarities this supremely assured actor attempts much and it shows. The performance is good — what Denzel joint isn't? — but unsatisfying with what Gilroy writes around it.

Gilroy rambles through Roman's fractured life for an hour before pieces begin interlocking, twice as long as necessary. Roman's relationship with George goes one way then another. A community organizer (Carmen Ejogo) takes interest in this old, odd man. A murder defendant (DeRon Horton) offers Roman information about the shooter in exchange for a lighter sentence.

What Roman does with that information sets Gilroy's movie on a course feeling like a writer seeking a way out after a character study runs it course. Washington gets burdened with monologues of pretzel-legal lingo as Roman's life turns around by unethical means while George gains a conscience. None of it makes sense scene-to-scene. Whatever point Gilroy is making about greedy jurisprudence gets jumbled by verbiage and the distraction of a great actor struggling with it.

Contact Steve Persall at or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.


Roman J. Israel, Esq.

Director: Dan Gilroy

Cast: Denzel Washington, Colin Farrell, Carmen Ejogo, Amanda Warren, DeRon Horton, Amari Cheatom, Niles Fitch, Hugo Armstrong

Screenplay: Dan Gilroy

Rating: R; strong profanity, brief violence

Running time: 120 min.

Grade: C


  1. Kristen Stewart, Ella Balinska and Naomi Scott in "Charlie's Angels." MERIE WEISMILLER WALLACE  |  Columbia Pictures
    Screenings of ‘Turning Point’ and ‘Lionel Richie at Glastonbury’ are also in store for the week.
  2. FILE - In this April 3, 2019, file photo characters from Disney and Fox movies are displayed behind Cathleen Taff, president of distribution, franchise management, business and audience insight for Walt Disney Studios during the Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures presentation at CinemaCon 2019, the official convention of the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO) at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. On Tuesday, Nov. 12, Disney Plus launches its streaming service. (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP, File) CHRIS PIZZELLO  |  Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP
    The Walt Disney Company’s foray into streaming services is off with a few hitches
  3. The Blair Witch Project director Dan Myrick, left, and his production company partner Kristian Krempel on Seventh Avenue in Ybor City.
    The production company estimates it will spend over $1 million locally
  4. Arnold Schwarzenegger in "Terminator: Dark Fate." KERRY BROWN  |  Paramount Pictures
    ‘Motherless Brooklyn’ and ‘Arctic Dogs’ open, too, plus screenings of ‘Jane’ with a score by the Florida Orchestra and ‘Parasite.’
  5. Former WWE wrestler turned actor John Hennigan performs stunts in the movie "Speed of Time" being made in Clearwater. Christian Cashmir
    It stars former WWE wrestler-turned-actor John Hennigan.
  6. Crewmembers from the Coast Guard Air Station in Clearwater and the Coast Guard Cutter "Tornado" rescue Nick Schuyler from an overturned vessel in 2009. Coast Guard photo/Fireman Adam Campbell (2009)
    “Not Without Hope” is based on the true story of the boat accident that took the lives of three football players and left a fourth stranded at sea.
  7. Mike Sandlin, owner of Grindhouse Video in Tampa, poses for a photo at his store. OCTAVIO JONES  |  Times
    Grindhouse Video, a temple of horror flicks, B movies and cult films, proves the video store isn’t dead yet.
  8. "The Current War" stars Benedict Cumberbatch. DEAN ROGERS  |  101 Studios
    ‘Countdown,’ ‘One Piece: Stampede,’ ‘Dolemite Is My Name’ and ‘The Great Alaskan Race’ also open, plus three horror screenings.
  9. Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta, shown here in the 1978 film "Grease," will make a Dec. 14 appearance in Tampa for a film sing-along and meet and greet with fans. AP
    The actors, who both have ties to the Tampa Bay area, will also do a question and answer session and meet some fans.
  10. Screenwriter Andy Warrener shows off a copy of his film "The Black String" available at a local Walmart. Andy Warrener
    Andy Warrener went from Civil War reenactor to screenwriter. ‘The Black String’ has two local screenings next week.