Riding through the sun-drenched Los Angeles, the charismatic defense attorney, Mick Haller (Matthew McConaughey), immediately presents himself as someone you’d like to know in times of trouble . . . as long as you’ve got the dough to pay upfront. He’s a courtroom monster who has no problem talking his way out of defending a client who can’t flip the bill. But the life of fast cars, lotsa’ fast money, and partnerships with desperate biker gangs, takes a turn for the worst when he accepts a case protecting a pretty-boy rich kid named Louis Roulet (Ryan Philippe) who repeatedly claims his innocence in the brutal beating of a young woman, despite the mountain of evidence packed on against him. Now business becomes personal for the charmer as his demons — repressed guilt and alcoholism — come out of hiding whilst in the middle of an increasingly complicated web of deceit.
Director Brad Furman (The Take) puts a lot of care in trying to channel legal dramas of the late ’70s (such as . . . And Justice for All) into The Lincoln Lawyer, a big-screen reimaging of the first in a long series of stories by American crime writer, Michael Connelly, that chronicle the smooth-talking lawyer’s misadventures. With anesthetically pleasing opening credits, a montage of streetscapes set to Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland’s “Ain’t No Love in the Heart of the City” and a lead that oozes cool, the director earns high grades in sculpting an entertaining popcorn drama that sidesteps many of its major pitfalls.
It’s refreshing to see an adaptation — no matter how preposterous to may be — that honors the original author’s vision. By hiring McConaughey, who has been a slump (to say the least), since the days of A Time to Kill and Lone Star, Furman has risked a box office dive (by those who have set the actor’s name as a red flag of sorts), instead choosing to preserve Connelly’s image of Haller. (Interestingly enough, McConaughey is explicitly mentioned in one of the author’s novels, 9 Dragons, in which a cornered suspect, who can’t provide an alibi for himself, claims that the actor can account for his story). Was it a premonition on Connelly’s part, was it the director’s way of honoring the reference, or is McConaughey truly the best fit for the role? That, my friends, I cannot answer, though I suspect a combination of the three; the actor has not only the look, but also the West Coast swagger demanded when playing a character rarely seen without a fresh suit and who does most of his business dealings in a Lincoln Town Car.
But when McConaughey’s charisma begins to teeter-totter, the excellent supporting cast pulls the production back up. The always radiant Marisa Tomei plays Haller’s ex-lover (with whom he has fathered a child), courtroom rival, and friend. Her main role in the film is acting as Mick’s rock, constantly picking him up from the local bar, while struggling to keep the reoccurring flame out of their seemingly dead romantic relationship. The most poignant factor in their chemistry being the entire “he’s a defense-attorney, while she’s a prosecutor” dynamic, which results in constant feuds over whose job is more morally acceptable — it is even hinted that this key element was responsible for the eventual downfall in their courtship. Also interesting choices are William H. Macy as Frank Levin, private investigator and Mick’s right-hand man, and Earl (Laurence Mason), his street-smart chauffeur.
Not so noteworthy are Philippe and Michael Peà±a, as Roulet and Jesus Martinez, an innocent man who Haller couldn’t keep out of jail, respectively — the variables in the protagonist’s life. Unlike Frank or Earl, their relationship to him constantly changes, none of these metamorphoses being rather interesting due to the actors’ bland performances — damning flaws as these are two of the most important characters in The Lincoln Lawyer.
John Romano’s (Nights in Rodanthe) screenplay has some problems of its own too, namely the fact that it isn’t very groundbreaking nor is it too memorable. In addition, the pacing becomes wackier as the film progresses and the climax comes much too abruptly. Much like his protagonist’s machine-gun mouth, Romano spews too much information too quickly, however, the evidence still stands and the verdict is set: Furman’s throwback is a whole lotta’ fun.