Evoking memories of “A Time to Kill” (the flick that made him a star), McConaughey plays Mickey Haller, a slick criminal defense attorney who runs his practice from the backseat of a Lincoln Continental. He usually represents street-level criminals like drug dealers, hookers and con artists, but he gets the client of a lifetime when a Beverly Hills rich kid named Louis Roulet (Ryan Phillippe) seeks his help in beating an attempted murder charge.
However, what seems like a chance at an easy payday quickly transforms in a deadly battle of wits between two master manipulators. Haller is eventually placed in a situation where he knows the truth about a series of crimes, but revealing it to the authorities would mean losing his career, his family and possibly his life. The circumstances lead Haller to develop the one thing he doesn’t need in his line of work: a conscience.
“The Lincoln Lawyer” is not a movie that keeps the audience guessing at the bad guy’s identity or wondering what’s going to happen next. Instead, the tension comes from witnessing how Haller schemes himself out of one extraordinarily tight situation after another. John Romano’s screenplay, based on a novel by Michael Connelly, uses Haller and other compelling characters to infuse creativity into a story that might have seemed cliché in the wrong hands.
Brad Furman, directing his first major release, does a nice job with the material. Like the people it’s depicting, the flick looks sleek on the surface. But when some ugly secrets are revealed through flashbacks or scenes with alternate perspectives, the scenes adopt a dark, gritty look. In addition, the use of music — a combination of blues, jazz and hip-hop — fits perfectly with the film’s tone.
McConaughey is at the top of his game here. It’s a relief to know that the guy once called “the next Paul Newman” still has what it takes to deliver a solid, charismatic performance. As Haller, he gets to be funny and clever; he gets to be a loving family man as well as a borderline alcoholic; he gets to run the gamut of emotions from happy to devastated to terrified to exhilarated; and he effortlessly handles each aspect of his character’s personality.
Phillippe is generally not known for his phenomenal acting skills. He has a fairly limited range, but he’s smart about it. He sticks to what he’s good at, which has provided him with a successful career. That’s the case with his performance here too. His reputation serves him well in the scenes where the audience is getting to know Roulet. Then, as certain facts about his character are revealed, he gets to use those preconceived notions to his advantage.
The two actors have one heck of an ensemble cast backing them up. The flick is a veritable “Where’s Waldo?” of fantastic actors, including Marisa Tomei, William H. Macy, Josh Lucas, John Leguizamo, Michael Pena, Bob Gunton, Frances Fisher and Bryan Cranston. You might not know some of those names, but I guarantee you’ll recognize every single one of their faces.
Simply put, “The Lincoln Lawyer” is a fun throwback to a time when it seemed like there was a John Grisham adaptation hitting theaters every other week. It’s not going to win any Oscars and it’s not going to be the highest grossing movie of the year. But chances are you’ll walk out of the theater content that the $10 you paid for your ticket was well spent. Hopefully, the movie does well enough to justify a sequel; I’ve got a feeling there are plenty of good stories left to tell about Mickey Haller.
“The Lincoln Lawyer” is rated R for some violence, sexual content and language.