The proliferation of police and courtroom procedurals on both the small and large screens continues unabated, with tent-pole series Law & Order ending its historic 20-year run last year. Yet in its wake it has left a legacy of spin-offs, imitators and tributes that concentrate on people on both sides of the legal fence and their quests for justice. The big screen procedural is kept alive often through inspiration from true life stories (the recent Conviction), highly dramatised versions (The Secret in Their Eyes) and more often than not, novelists who make a career trading on the seedy underbelly of society. Michael Connelly, best known for “The Poet”, Clint Eastwood’s adaption of Blood Moon and regular appearances on TV’s Castle, is the source of director Brad Furman’s sophomore effort The Lincoln Lawyer.
Slick lawyer Mickey Haller (Matthew McConaughey, Ghosts Of Girlfriends Past) operates out of his Lincoln Town Car, earning a living off a variety of clients from biker gangs to drug-addicted prostitutes. When his buddy Val (John Leguizamo, Repo Men) tips him off on a case of rich kid Louis Roulet (Ryan Phillippe, MacGruber), who has been charged with rape and assault, he thinks he has finally scored his big break. However, both he and investigator Frank Levin (William H. Macy, Dirty Girl) feel something is wrong with the case – and their client – from the start.
On the surface, The Lincoln Lawyer may seem like it is just another entry in an already crowded legal-eagle market. Yet from the L.A. Law-style ‘NTGUILTY’ licence plate to the split-screen title sequence in the vein of Peter Yates (Bullitt) and Norman Jewison (The Thomas Crown Affair), it is almost as if the film has leapt straight out of the macho past and had the audacity to give this modern police procedural thing a go. Indeed, McConaughey – in what may be one of his best turns in front of the camera of late – embodies the spirit of Steve McQueen at the start of the film, with his ballsy attitude having scant regard for the trail of disappointments behind him. Yet this is a well-rounded character, and not simply the token star brought in to save the day. McConaughey first came to wider public attention in the thematically similar A Time to Kill, the 1996 adaptation of John Grisham’s courtroom drama, and in many ways his take on The Lincoln Lawyer‘s Mickey Haller is the flip-side of that performance. He is now the cynical lawyer at the other end of his career, frightened that he will not know true innocence if he sees it in front of him. All criminal defence lawyers will know that the morally grey area he treads is a very real one, and this performance may be one of the closest to reality in portraying that difficult work-life balance.
A certain level of exaggeration is always expected in a courtroom drama, as the actual procedures of a courtroom are fairly dull and…well, procedural. Furman opens the narrative up to explore Los Angeles with all of its quirks: it is a sticky, sweaty and bustling place, and this pace and attitude carry over to the film. While he fully acknowledges the importance of the courtroom scenes as integral to the story, he also acknowledges that every person in the room is carrying the baggage of the outside world. While there are times when Haller’s baggage conveniently comes back to haunt and aid him in his quest for justice, the rich tapestry woven by ex-wife Marisa Tomei (The Wrestler). William H. Macy also proves the adage about there being “no small parts” in a terrific supporting performance that increases in its long-haired potency as the film goes on. The ensemble nature of the casting means that not everyone has a chance to grab their full fifteen minutes, but each leaves a powerful mark along the way. The Lincoln Lawyer may have emerged from a full playing field, but it distinguishes itself as a taut thriller.
The Reel Bits: The Lincoln Lawyer may be the latest in a long line of legal procedurals, but it does what it does incredibly well. A super-paced courtroom drama that acknowledges the presence of the outside world, bolstered by a career performance from Matthew McConaughey. This may be the stuff of popcorn thrills, but slick piece hits most of the right notes.
The Lincoln Lawyer is released 31 March 2011 in Australia by Roadshow Films.