ROMAN J. ISRAEL, ESQ.
Written and directed by Dan Gilroy
With Denzel Washington, Colin Farrell, Amanda Warren, Carmen Ejogo
Rated PG-13

Denzel Washington hits another one out of the park. Why should that surprise anyone anymore? Yet if word wasn’t out that he plays the title role in “Roman J. Israel, Esq.,” and if his name wasn’t seen in the opening credits, there’s no doubt that there would be at least a few viewers watching it not realizing it was Denzel.

That’s partly because of his awful haircut, giant glasses, and frumpy clothing, but it’s equally due to the fact that Washington hasn’t physically carried himself like this in any previous performances. He kind of lumbers around in this film, not caring what anyone thinks about how he appears. Once we get to know him a bit, it all makes perfect sense.

Roman has been toiling away as a civil rights attorney in a small, struggling law office in Los Angeles for 26 years, acting as the brains of the two-man practice – doing all the research – while his partner William takes care of the brawn – defending the downtrodden in the courtrooms. When the older William has a heart attack and is holed up in an intensive care that he probably won’t leave alive, it’s up to Roman, at the insistence of the office secretary Lynn (Amanda Warren), to step up and do some defending on his own. Which he does, albeit against his will.
 
Roman, you see, knows everything one would need to know about the law to do this job. In fact, he knows more than most. He’s a savant, of sorts, with a photographic memory. Back in the’70s, he was a very active activist, and is still an idealist at heart. Put all of that together and you get a quiet, passionate man who only wants justice, and doesn’t give a hoot if he offends lawyers and judges on his way to getting it.
 
But he’s not only living with his activist past. Those outfits and glasses he wears were in style in the ’70s, as were the silly headphones he wears and the music he listens to (the soundtrack is filled with the still great but long-ago sounds of Al Green, Eddie Kendricks, Marvin Gaye, and The Jimmy Castor Bunch). There’s more: He also uses a flip phone and a Rolodex.
 
All of this buildup leads to a plotline that takes Roman on a journey of change. Slick, well-dressed George Pierce (Colin Farrell), a working acquaintance of William’s, is called in by Lynn to assist with things in the office. He’s incredibly busy at his own very successful firm, but due to a promise that’s revealed later in the film, he drops by, checks out Roman’s capabilities, likes what he sees (except for the wardrobe), and makes an offer to bring Roman onboard at his firm, where he can earn plenty of money on big, important cases, and maybe dress better.
 
The plotting gets a little complicated in the small-time cases that Roman is still handling and with the bigger ones he’s handed when he finally says yes to George. And it’s a little difficult to keep track of their details. But director and screenwriter Dan Gilroy makes the wise choice of focusing more on the characters than on what they’re doing. Roman and George are polar opposites as human beings, but they’re both good lawyers, and the scenes in which they’re chatting, about themselves and about the law, are among the best written and acted in the film.
 
One plot element takes a look at how suddenly having money, no matter how it’s gotten, can change a person. Another, concerning a large, obviously heavy briefcase that Roman lugs around with him everywhere he goes, flutters around in the background for most of the film before finally being brought upfront. There’s even the possibility of a romantic element when Roman, a man who has no social graces (which is played out for laughs), meets up with Maya (Carmen Ejogo), another social activist, who admires him.
 
But the film continues to work best as a character study, even when the script throws in a bit of an action component near the end. That’s not very believable, and neither is the event that concludes the film. But hanging with Denzel for a couple of hours, and watching him do what he can do makes it all worth it.

Ed Symkus can be reached at esymkus@rcn.com.