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Shining Denzel

Roman J. Israel’s office is covered in paper documents. Not only because it’s home to a lawyer, but because he won’t use computers. The one on his desk, despite a 2017 setting, uses a blocky CRT monitor, the plastic exterior yellowing. His cell phone? That flips open.

Israel is appealingly odd, a savant, well above others in intelligence if not social capabilities. He’s poor, but a freedom fighter with an awkward gait in an outmoded gray ’70s suit and headphones covered in cracking foam. However, he believes in reform and protests. Perspective on America’s overcrowded, broken prison system sit within the script, viewed through Israel’s empathetic eyes.

Denzel Washington is a powerhouse here. Given his career output, that statement seems redundant. Roman J. Israel further stacks his near faultless resume. Israel’s quirks and idiosyncratic behavior is captivating. There’s a wealth of information packed into this character, rich and sharply defined, if at times in his own mind.

Roman J. Israel loses itself and its title hero

Watching Israel work for the first hour is a delight. He deals with loss and change – poorly – if still committed to his cause. In his spare time, he drafts a massive overhaul of the legal system, pleading for someone to help with the paperwork. Roman J. Israel is hypnotic, involving, and stellar, dodging the cliches and formalities of lawyer cinema. Israel is like no other, a hero without recognition and without the need for any.

It’s in the second half where Dan Gilroy’s script turns, taking away the Isreal as introduced and turning him into a bigshot lawyer. Israel’s changes happen rapidly with drastic consequences. One poor decision, made out of desperation, turns into a crisis. Suddenly, the awkwardly affable Israel becomes paranoid and selfish. He’s no longer engaging on-screen, behaving erratically and entering into uncomfortable relationships. Roman J. Israel’s ideology turns against the system it intends to expose, cynically believing even its best can be corrupted. Israel is simply too likable to see fail.

For a character-driven drama, to turn on itself in the hunt for dramatic properties is all too sinful. Roman J. Israel loses itself and its title hero. While others around Israel begin to understand and change themselves – Israel’s work will continue in other forms when he’s gone – his own sense of right is too warped. The selfless becomes the selfish, putting Roman J. Israel into a narrative crisis mode looking for a safe way out. It finds the means, but in all too depressing way.


Shot primarily on film, Roman J. Israel sports great texture behind a well resolved and consistent grain structure. Close-ups deliver outstanding definition. The Los Angeles locales shine into the lens with superlative resolution. Other than some flickering on blinds, nothing is lost to this presentation.

Going with the character, color timing favors an aged appearance. Black levels turn toward browns, and saturation remains muted toward similar hues. Few strong primaries appear in the palette, but Roman J. Israel is still attractive in this regard. There’s density to these hues, used well and with purpose.

Frequent use of strong contrast keeps depth high, even in the absence of true black. Well lit offices offer unusually high lighting schemes, avoiding the often dour look used in these types of dramas. Windows surround every room, with sunlight pouring in.


For a dialog-driven drama, Roman J. Israel is fond of using the rear and stereo channels. Los Angeles comes alive in this DTS-HD track, filling the speakers with panning traffic, horns, helicopters, and more. Inside prisons, the sound echoes flawlessly, and a short scene at a Lakers game fills with crowd ambiance.

Some thunder will use the LFE and the soundtrack is likewise fond of the low-end. The musical mix uses retro R&B and others, hitting the subwoofer with clarity. Balance between the center and the full soundfield is perfect. It’s a rare drama with this much attention to its sound mixing.


Both Washington and co-star Colin Farrell earn separate features on their characters, typical and high on praise. Together, they run about 10-minutes. With some class, the making-of is given a clean aesthetic and delves into the real world issues presented in the film. There’s a lot here for a 10-minute piece. Deleted scenes run close to 12-minutes.

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Denzel Washington is perfect at Roman J. Israel Esq., but the film around him suffers in the second half as Roman’s character falls apart.

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