Friday, April 1, 2011

New Release Review: The Lincoln Lawyer (Brad Furman, 2011)

The Lincoln Lawyer is the recent film adaptation of the 16th novel by American crime writer Michael Connelly. Adapted by John Romano, the film directed by Brad Furman and stars Matthew McConaughey. Fifteen years have passed since McConaughey appeared in Joel Schumacher's John Grisham adaptation, A Time to Kill, were he played an earnest, clean-cut defense attorney. This is arguably one of his finest roles, which has been followed by a string of rom-coms and action flops. But he is back in form here in The Lincoln Lawyer, playing a suave, charismatic but morally questionable Los Angeles County criminal defense attorney. This is the second adaptation of the work of the prolific crime fiction writer, following the fairly uninteresting Blood Work, directed by Clint Eastwood. This Connelly adaptation matches the engaging page-turning nature of the novel and delivers an absorbing, energetically paced and entertaining experience. While it offers few twists on the tired courtroom drama genre, its an effective thriller with solid performances that stands tall amongst recent outings.

McConaughey plays Mickey Haller, a moderately successful criminal defense attorney, who operates predominantly out of his Lincoln Sedan, driven by a former client working off his legal fees. He has built a reputation ensuring that even his most guilty client are acquitted, which is paraded around on his Lincoln's numberplate (NTGUILTY). As an arrogant, street-smart attorney, Haller has built his career defending the city's lowlifes and dealing with the city's seedy underworld, and in the opening sequences he calmly smooths out a few client problems with quick thinking, fast talking and a cheeky grin, before he is thrust the case of his career, that of Louis Roulet (Ryan Phillippe). Roulet is a wealthy Beverly Hills Playboy and son of a Real Estate Mogul, who is accused of the brutal beating, rape and attempted murder of a prostitute. Haller's morally questionable professionalism is neither unethical nor corrupt, but has resulted in a uniform dislike for him amongst the city's law enforcement, and the separation from his State Prosecutor ex-wife, Maggie McPherson (Marissa Tomei). This is a man who knows that his clients are guilty, but he works to ensure they return to the streets (or given a lesser sentence). For Haller, an innocent client is scary. If he were to lose a case and his client found guilty, he would need to live with that for the rest of his life. How many points for guessing if this emerges as a theme?

Haller finally meets his match with Roulet, which at first appears to be a straightforward case. Roulet claims that he was lured by the prostitute in the bar to her home for sexual favors, only to be beaten on entry and framed for the crime. It becomes a case to prove the victim was in fact after his wealth, when suing for damages. Haller and his private investigator Frank Levin (an always solid William H. Macy) analyze the evidence and find startling similarities to one of Haller's previous cases, a crime his client Jesus Martinez (Michael Pena) was encouraged by Haller to plead guilty to, despite his insistence that he was innocent. With the Prosecution set to recommend the Death Penalty to Martinez, and with Haller convinced the evidence suggested the man was guilty, he encourages Martinez to confess and take a life sentence. But is Roulet innocent after all? Why didn't he admit to having a knife on his person, the same one found bloodied at the crime scene? His explanation to everything is to claim he has no memory of the event, and that the evidence is staged. Roulet is shady from the beginning, and appears to be working far too hard to prove his innocence. Haller is experienced and savvy and soon develops his suspicions about Roulet's true involvement. This is okay, he has had guilty clients acquitted before. But guilty clients who may have also killed his partner? No no. Haller, despite his personal feelings, is obliged to do his best for his client, with his hands tied by attorney-client confidentiality. Haller, amidst romantic flings with his ex-wife, duels with State Prosecutor Ted Minton (Josh Lucas), an additional unnecessary antagonist throughout the concluding courtroom sequences. It's frenetic, watchable popcorn drama.

While The Lincoln Lawyer is certainly not groundbreaking; offering up the typical structure of the legal thriller, it is energetically paced, tightly scripted (for the most part), well acted and genuinely entertaining. It loses direction there for a while and the plot contrivances begin to show in the final third, which is naturally full of cliches. We begin to question the motive behind the crime, and try to remember what happened to the supporting characters. There are a few surprises along the way but they are all fairly predictable, and it could have done with one less denouement. The soundtrack is pretty good, using a mix of hip hop and rap songs to pump up the audience during the opening credits, which make the only real use of the Lincoln, via some inventive shots. We are immediately thrust into Haller's world, the back of his Lincoln, but it becomes more of a useless plot device the further the film proceeds. I was actually a little bit concerned early when I saw some of the camerawork. It was full of awkward extreme close-ups, shaky reverse tracking and overenthusiastic zooms. I'm not sure if Furman was trying to do something different, but either it settled down throughout the film, or I was distracted less. Some of the cinematography and editing just seemed out-of-place to add unnecessary dynamics.

McConaughey certainly looks like he has something to prove here, and he delivers one of his best performances since A Time to Kill. He is mature and charismatic as a charming hustler, who becomes emotionally consumed with regret and frustration. He hides his boiling hatred beneath his professional exterior. Pushed to the edge, his life (and that of his family's) is threatened and for the first time he finds that his legal skills have been manipulated and challenged. He is rarely off screen and very competently carries the film and drives it through its twists and turns. The supporting cast are all quite good, if only making up stock complementary roles. Ryan Phillippe, who is usually cast in cold-hearted dramatic roles these days, is pretty wooden, and I didn't think he was convincing anyone he was innocent. Marissa Tomei, William H. Macy, Michael Pena, John Leguizamo (what did that guy do?) and Bryan Cranston are all relegated to a scene here and there. With the exception of William H. Macy, most of their stories are quickly brushed over at the conclusion in passing.

Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by The Lincoln Lawyer. Its an engrossing, intelligent thriller that makes good use of Connelly's best-selling source material. Cutting down a complex narrative is always a challenge, but I think it's quite well done. I haven't seen many recent courtroom dramas recently; once upon a time studios were relentless with their production. While very watchable, they tend to often offer up the same old tricks. If you choose to ignore some of the incredible plot developments, The Lincoln Lawyer has some fine moments, and certainly worth a visit to the cinema.

My Rating: 3 1/2 Stars (B-)

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