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'Roman J. Israel, Esq.': Another top-notch performance from Denzel Washington

Denzel Washington plays an on-the-spectrum attorney forced to meet the world head-on in "Roman J. Israel, Esq."

In “Roman J. Israel, Esq.,” Denzel Washington takes on the role of a lawyer on the autism spectrum.
In “Roman J. Israel, Esq.,” Denzel Washington takes on the role of a lawyer on the autism spectrum.Read moreGlen Wilson / Sony Pictures

Roman J. Israel — now that's a name for a lawyer.

Suggestive of laws ancient and enduring, secular and moral.

That name also suggests worlds in conflict, a concept that also applies to the title character in Roman J. Israel, Esq., an uneven movie elevated by Denzel Washington's distinctive performance. His Roman is on the spectrum, a neurodiverse guy who knows his way around a law library but who is mostly lost around people. In a two-man firm that practices criminal law, he's a distant second — assigned to do research and to keep away from clients, from courtrooms, from people. His cloistered world collapses, though, when the managing partner is hospitalized, and Roman, out of his element, shuffles into the courtroom to represent the firm's clients.

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We immediately see why Roman's partner kept him under wraps. He is unable to read emotions in other people, and his thinking is concise but inflexible;  in an overcrowded legal system that counts on compromise and expedience to keep itself running, Roman is lost. He starts out asking for a continuance and ends up earning a contempt citation — a development presented by writer-director Dan Gilroy with humor and a touch of poignancy (also visible in Washington's subtle performance, which somehow balances muted emotions and expressiveness).

Back at the office, he has more trouble — a slick downtown lawyer, George Pierce (Colin Farrell), has arrived to take over the managing partner's cases, part of a longtime arrangement Roman knew nothing about. He feels betrayed, and those feelings intensify when he learns his former partner had made no provisions for Roman's future. Enter Pierce, who takes Roman into his own firm, hoping to use his uncanny grasp of case law — and his race — to help with certain clients. Roman has value, and his time at the posh, profitable firm exposes him to a new side of life, and to new temptations.

If Farrell is the pin-striped devil in this story, the angel is Carmen Ejogo, playing a lawyer who runs a pro bono legal nonprofit where Roman volunteers. This yields a great scene, rooted in Roman's time-capsule personality. He withdrew from the world after law school, apparently sometime in the 1970s, and has the clothes and hair and oversize spectacles to match. Also the throwback sensibilities, hopelessly out of step with millennials who are offended when he asks men to sacrifice their seats to women who are standing.

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Poor Roman — unaware that chivalry is now offensive, as well as dead.

I wish the movie had remained in that story, instead of following Roman's seduction by the lucre that flows at Pierce's firm, a development  the movie never convincingly sells. What does work is Washington's subtle, authentic, meticulous work as a walled-off, neurodiverse man.

Having said that, I look forward to Equalizer 2 and to seeing him kill another couple dozen gangsters.