This faithful adaptation of Michael Connelly's best-selling legal thriller, THE LINCOLN LAWYER, is a throwback to breezier, slightly funkier courtroom procedurals. A smart performance by Matthew McConaughey that imbues the character of Mickey Haller with a knowing swagger anchors this approach, and the film's loose sensibilities serve as a counterpoint to the efficient clockwork plot. The latter quality of the film may in fact be its lone weakness, as it has trimmed much of the juicy fat away from the story, leaving bits and pieces hanging here and there, and not quite giving us enough character information in a few instances. Still, THE LINCOLN LAWYER is a wonderful film that kept me enthralled even though I was familiar with the many twists and turns beforehand.
The film follows Mickey Haller, a criminal defense attorney who will defend anyone who can pay his price. As the film opens, he stalls a case from going to court because a client of his, a member of a bike gang, hasn't paid the bill to date. In the following scene we meet the rest of the bikers, who have brought payment to Haller, and are given a sense that he is a man unafraid to take risks, but who has an ethical code even though he's willing to take a razor to the prosecution and bleed even the most guilty clients' charges down to an empty shell. A bit later, when Haller meets with repeat-client Gloria, a hooker who he never charges for his services. The relationship is a bit murky in the film, but in the book, it's really a sweet motive on his part, because he sees the good in Gloria, and wants her to get straight and stay that way. In any case, it serves to show his golden ideals held deep within the hard exterior of a money-driven defense lawyer.
As mentioned earlier, McConaughey's turn as Haller is a major reason this film works as well as it does. Haller has just enough sleazy wit and smart-ass charm to keep the audience alert to the plot, but the trick of casting someone as instantly likable and recognizable as McConaughey also serves to make us root for him and know that, no matter what twists get thrown at him, Haller is a good guy who will do the right thing in the end. Haller doesn't care what others think of him, and when cops come at him with jabs about his job and his culpability in keeping scum on the streets (Bryan Cranston is fun in a bit part), he brings it right back to them, knocking on crooked cops and how easy it is to do his job when the D.A. and the police are so inept at prosecution. Haller is a fun character, one that is challenging and emotional and downright engaging. He's a real, honest human being, and for once he's on screen in front of us.
McConaughey isn't alone, though, and is supported by a strong supporting cast, including Marisa Tomei as his ex-wife and prosecutor Maggie, William H. Macy as his private investigator, and Ryan Phillipe as Louis Roulet, the client he's been hired to get off an attempted murder charge. Phillipe's character in particular is worthy of notice because of his many faces, all of which are played expertly. Phillipe isn't an actor we've seen much of lately, and that's a shame, because I've always enjoyed his work. I'm sure audiences will be intrigued to see him here first as the story's underdog, and then as its villain. Josh Lucas is also enjoyable as prosecutor Ted Minton, and the courtroom scenes hinge a lot on his reactions to Haller's defense tactics. It's a shame there's not more of the court proceedings in the film, though, because Minton has some fantastic scenes in the book that would have likely been explosive between the two actors on screen.
While defending Roulet, Haller stumbles upon information that leads him to believe Roulet is not only guilty of the crime he is now accused, but also of the murder of another woman that got pinned on a previous client of Haller's, and who pleaded guilty to avoid the death penalty. Of course, not giving too much away, the attorney-client privilege is given a lot of play in how everything turns out, and it's really quite intriguing and plausible. Let's just say there aren't any surprises, no matter how dark the film gets, as to how everything ends.
Cinematographer Lukas Ettlin, who also provided us with the most memorable and pleasing part of recent plotless disaster BATTLE: LOS ANGELES, turns in some really fantastic late-Sixties exploitation style "slick" cinematography, balancing just enough edge and flatness that really feels like that period, but in a completely good way. There are plenty of gorgeous close-ups of the stars, as well as some stark, matter-of-fact exposures we're not used to seeing in a Hollywood film, including an emotional drink with Haller after a close friend's murder which really doesn't make McConaughey seem like the pretty boy we all think of when his name gets mentioned.
I think what will stick with me the most, though, is McConaughey. Finally the man has returned to actual acting. I'm content with him popping up in small but memorable roles while cashing major paychecks for rom-coms, but it's nice to see him headlining something that requires him to actually show up to work. Maybe we're entering a new period for him, one that will see him really come into his own. Or, maybe we'll just get hints of true brilliance here and there. Honestly, I get the feeling that, much like Mickey Haller, he doesn't care all that much come to think of it.