Review of The Lincoln Lawyer

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A sleazy defense attorney has a crisis of conscience when he represents a wealthy client who has a foolproof plan to beat the system.
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Movie Review: "The Lincoln Lawyer"

-- Rating: R (for some violence, sexual content, and language)
Length: 118 minutes
Release Date: March 18, 2011
Directed by: Brad Furman
Genre: Crime/Drama/Thriller

Matthew McConaughey is finally back in the courtroom since his turn in "A Time to Kill" back in the 1990s. This time, he's playing Mick Haller in the 2011 legal thriller "The Lincoln Lawyer." Based on the bestselling book by Michael Connelly, the story takes its audience through murky moral ground and taut suspense while making us try to guess the truth every step of the way.

Haller (McConaughey) is a criminal defense attorney who operates out of the back of a Lincoln Town Car, which is driven by a former client. His typical clients include regular, run-of-the-mill criminals, including a member of a biker gang. Haller is not the most scrupulous guy, and he knows it, but most of his clients still appreciate his work in their own way-except for Jesus Martinez (Michael Peña), an old client whom Haller had convinced to plead guilty so he could avoid the death penalty. His family is broken, with his disapproving prosecutor ex-wife (Marisa Tomei) and daughter (Mackenzie Aladjem), but they still remain a complicated part of his life.

The cocky and smooth Haller gets what he thinks is a big break when Beverly Hills playboy Louis Roulet (Ryan Phillippe) hires him. Roulet has been accused of savagely beating a prostitute, and of course Haller thinks it's a clear-cut case of the rich boy being in the wrong place at the wrong time. His plan for the defense starts to go south, however, as evidence begins to come up that makes Roulet look less and less innocent. In fact, deeper research shows that there might even be a connection between Roulet's case and Martinez's. With mounting evidence that his client has been playing him from the start, Haller begins to wonder how simple this case will really be, while learning that he might still just have something that no one else thought he had left-scruples.

McConaughey comes to life as the smooth, cheeky Haller, balancing the character's surface of sleaziness with a good dose of underlying intelligence and integrity. He plays Haller as a man who knows that he's helping some scummy people, but if he won't do it, who will? It's almost as though Haller thinks of himself as a necessary evil in the world, and McConaughey pulls it off with his usual smooth aplomb and buckets of charisma.

The supporting cast also lends a solid sense of depth to the story, with Tomei's presence giving McConaughey's character not only a professional foil but also a softer aspect to his bravado-their failed relationship isn't touched on much, but the two actors give their brief interactions a healthy dose of bittersweetness that shows how Haller really is a human being after all. The ever-dependable William H. Macy plays Haller's investigator partner and buddy Frank Levin, bringing with him an earthy quality to help ground the story as it becomes wilder and more twisted. Phillippe, as Roulet, is quiet and somewhat detached. At first, this may appear as a poor acting choice, but as the story progresses, Phillippe's performance actually gives Roulet an interesting sort of quiet menace, helping both Haller and the audience wonder just what really is beneath the surface after all. And Peña's turn as the imprisoned Martinez is rather brief, but it still manages to be poignant and heartfelt.

Brad Furman's directing style gets up close and personal with the actors, making sure every smirk or twitch is clearly shown onscreen to the audience. It can feel a little forced sometimes, with Furman using the very contemporary tactic of letting the camera get shaky instead of keeping the frame steady and smooth. But, despite the occasional camera foibles, Furman takes us briskly along through all the twists, turns, questions, and revelations, and he still leaves some breathing room for folks to stay caught up.

"The Lincoln Lawyer" may not appear to be anything very new-Michael Connelly's book came out in 2005, and audiences have seen various and sundry legal thrillers come and go over the decades. But the cast and writing manage to pull this story up from being just another basic courtroom suspense. From Haller's nonstandard office setup, to his own convoluted plan to have justice truly served in the end, "The Lincoln Lawyer" manages to become something rather memorable.

Rating 3 out of 5