For better or worse, March Madness takes over the TV screens and dreams of players and bookies alike, placing their final bets on an upset that no one suspects. It seems where the NCAA ends, the MPAA begins as one of its favored sons may well have pulled off a career upset, which will leave audiences anything but.
This cinematic embodiment of this Comeback Kid is Matthew McConaughey, who rides in the back of a film vehicle which will remind audiences why we thought he was cool in the first place. Known more of late for his shirtless photographs than his acting prowess, McConaughey grabs Michael Connelly’s best seller by the lapels and drags its main character down the halls of redemption.
McConaughey plays Mick Haller, a smooth talking criminal defense attorney that’s as slick as a politician and as deliberate as an assassin. Thanks to a suspended driver’s license, he’s chauffeured by the trusted Earl (Laurence Mason) in a Lincoln Continental with the vanity plate NTGUILTY. Gliding his way through the Los Angeles County Courthouse, he pushes the best buttons on everyone from bailiffs to prosecutors to get what he wants. In one of the funnier scenes, he reminds a client busted for growing pot that it’s payment first and defense second. Mick’s the best at what he does, but doesn’t represent A-list talent until a dream client is dropped in his lap by bail bondsman Val Valenzuela (John Leguizamo).
Louis Roulet (Ryan Phillippe) is a spoiled rich kid and son of wealthy socialite Mary Windsor (Frances Fisher). Louis’s family has money to burn and they’ll need it since he’s been arrested for nearly murdering a call girl. Roulet claims he was set up and with his emotionless face, red flags go up fast enough. Why he requests the unfamiliar Haller to defend him is a mystery in and of itself. Assisting Haller in proving Roulet’s innocence is a grizzled private eye, played by William H. Macy.
Not only is The Lincoln Lawyer a fun throwback in terms of it’ choice in cars, but although a legal drama, it goes stylistically old school. The film delightfully goes back a generation or two in look and feel, bringing to mind Raymond Chandler and Jim Rockford over Law & Order. Screenwriter John Romano is no stranger to crime procedurals or characters who have to struggle to do the right thing as a veteran scribe of In Plain Sight and The Beast. His adaptation of Michael Connelly’s novel is more than just a wink to a nearly forgotten genre. Romano’s script is at its best when Haller is on a mission to “make it right”.
Possibly the best case for The Lincoln Lawyer is that it’s proof that ensemble casts can work, even for a film that likely won’t be nominated for an Oscar. McConaughey may have the top billing, but everyone has a chance to shine in and out of the courtroom. William H. Macy as the private eye with a 70′s porn ‘stach that goes down his chipmunk cheeks fits the bill from a time when disco was big. He may be one backward baseball cap away from being a cartoon, but his Frank Levin is a frumpy yin to McConaughey’s perfectly coiffed yang. Marisa Tomei plays Haller’s ex-wfie and sometime love interest. Her cougar-esque renaissance continues here as the ex-wife who struggles with sharing her confidence and her bed with a man still searching for his soul. Tomei’s Maggie may be weak to Haller’s charms, but she’s not weak and will call him out in a heartbeat.
The bail bondsman that sets most of the plot in motion is John Leguizamo as Val Valenzuela (how’s that for a movie name). Leguizamo’s range is without question, but he’s in his element when he’s moving 100 miles an hour as the duplicitous Val. He has that “wind him up and watch him go” quality that seems to engages audiences no matter what character he plays. In probably one of the best cast films of the year, actors Michael Pare, Bryan Cranston and country star Trace Adkins play their parts to perfection.
Perhaps the biggest comeback may be behind the camera. Director Brad Furman manages this huge ensemble with such ease that it’s a wonder why he hasn’t done anything since 2007′s The Take. With enough twists, turns and double-crosses, The Lincoln Lawyer can be a little convoluted at times, but the wide variety of characters more than makes up for any missed dialogue or plot holes. The Lincoln may be the size of a boat, but its ride into film noir is where this underrated vehicle truly shines. You’ll find yourself rooting for McConaughey’s Haller just as you’ll root for his alter ego not to settle for a paycheck from starring in weak rom-coms. He may be surprised to find out he’s still pretty cool even with his shirt on.