As I watched Matthew McConaughey bring his A-game to this surprisingly satisfying and smartly crafted legal thriller, I couldn’t help thinking of Muhammad Ali. Remember the way he’d lie back against the ropes until you were sure he had nothing left and suddenly burst back to thunderous life? That’s sort of what the actor’s done here. After a string of romantic comedies that left his career down for the count, he’s bounced back to give one of his finest performances to date.
McConaughey brings just the right mix of smarm and charm to the role of Mick Haller, a smooth-talking, bottom-feeding L.A. defense attorney who works out of the backseat of his chauffeured Lincoln Continental. A streetwise, ethically flexible hustler, Haller has built a clientele that consists almost exclusively of drug dealers, hookers, murderers and bagmen. The fact that they’re almost always guilty doesn’t cost him any sleep. If they’ve got the cash, he’ll get them off on a technicality or plea-bargain their charges down to a slap on the wrist.
Based on Michael Connelly’s best-selling novel of the same name and directed by Brad Furman (The Take), the film surrounds McConaughey with an unusually capable supporting cast. His investigator and sidekick is played colorfully by the great-as-ever William H. Macy. In keeping with genre tradition, Haller drinks a great deal and is divorced. The twist here is that he and his ex are still friendly. Sometimes very friendly. Marisa Tomei brings a convincing warmth and intelligence to her role.
Laurence Mason, as Haller’s driver, offers choice bits of wisdom from behind the wheel. And then there’s John Leguizamo as one of Mick’s bail bondsmen. He tips the attorney off to the case around which the film revolves. Ryan Phillippe costars as an angel-faced Beverly Hills playboy accused of beating up a young woman he met in a bar. Louis Roulet is everything Haller’s clients customarily are not, namely rich and apparently innocent.
At any rate, Roulet makes a credible case for his innocence. He looks his new lawyer straight in the eye and offers to take a polygraph test. He claims he’s being set up by the girl and her pimp as part of a plan to bring a lucrative civil suit against him, and says he’s eager to go to trial and prove it.
He certainly looks like he’s not guilty, though that hardly matters. Haller can’t see anything but great big cartoon dollar signs, so he takes what he thinks is going to be a slam dunk of a case — never suspecting that things aren’t remotely what they seem. Are they ever in L.A.-based noir? Has this dude never seen Chinatown?
Movie-critic law prohibits me from saying a whole lot more, except that John Romano’s script has more twists than a pit of snakes; that Furman’s direction is assured, even elegant in places; and that it’s great to see less of McConaughey’s pecs and more of the acting chops that originally snagged him roles in pictures such as Dazed and Confused, A Time to Kill, Lone Star and Amistad.
The Lincoln Lawyer isn’t quite vintage-quality crime drama, but it’s a classier and more entertaining 118 minutes than you probably think. In its plot, its hard-boiled dialogue and its atmosphere, one can even detect distant echoes of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. It’s a hell of a whodunit. But the real mystery is why its star waited so long to take on material worthy of his talent once again.