The Lincoln Lawyer
3 stars (out of 4)
There are two immediate pleasures in seeing Matthew McConaughey essay such a seamy character as Mick Haller, the bottom-feeding title attorney of The Lincoln Lawyer.
This is McConaughey’s first real dramatic role in five years, following a string of comedies where it seemed he was content to ride his good looks and Texas charm until the horizon vanished. He has something to prove, and he knows it.
It’s also intriguing to think of Haller as the curdled older version of the nervous defense attorney McConaughey played 15 years ago in A Time to Kill. He still wears the suit and talks the talk, but idealism has been supplanted by cynicism.
And The Lincoln Lawyer has attractions beyond the marquee. Director Brad Furman (The Take) and screenwriter John Romano (TV’s Hill Street Blues and L.A. Law) take a sinewy yarn by crime novelist Michael Connelly and make a crackling good thriller of it.
It’s a bedrock legal tenet that even the devil deserves fair representation, no matter how great the guilt or how aggrieved the victim. Conscience doesn’t enter into it, only duty.
Yet some attorneys take an unseemly pride in defending the indefensible, the state of mind where we first find McConaughey’s Haller. He tools around L.A. in a chauffeured Lincoln, which bears the licence plate “NTGUILTY.”
The 1970s music on the soundtrack immediately tips to the pimp vibe. With his shades up and his ethics down, Haller trades his considerable courtroom skills for fast cash, no questions asked. If you’ve got the green, he’s got the smoke machine, no matter whether his clients are bikers or bankers.
Haller figures he’s got a fast windfall when his bought-off bail bondsman (John Leguizamo) gives him a line on Beverly Hills playboy Louis Roulet (Ryan Phillippe), who is accused of beating and attempting to murder a woman he met in a bar.
Roulet is like a spoiled rich brat, but his alibi is sound and his mama has a big chequebook. Looks like another ka-ching for Haller, but some sleuthing on his part, aided by his shaggy sidekick Frank (William H. Macy, a fine cameo), turns up disturbing evidence and possible corruption of justice.
Haller’s conscience, long dormant, starts to kick in. Yet pride and the law require him to give Roulet the best defence he can, even if it means he must hold his nose while doing so.
The Lincoln Lawyer has so much going for it, you have to wonder why it has been padded with underwritten characters. Marisa Tomei has a criminally small role as Haller’s ex-wife, who is also a prosecuting attorney. Josh Lucas fares better as the main prosecutor facing down Haller, but he’s sidelined for much of the picture.
The spotlight is firmly on McConaughey, but he earns the attention.
The movie plays like the pilot for a potential TV series, which is hardly surprising given screenwriter Romano’s background.
And it wouldn’t necessarily be a bad idea if that happened. In the meantime, it’s a solid return to dramatic form for Matthew McConaughey.
Peter Howell is a syndicated movie critic for The Toronto Star.