“There’s no client scarier than an innocent man”
Just when I thought The Lincoln Lawyer would be another run-of-the-mill courtroom drama with behind the scenes evidence gathering to either acquit Mick Haller’s (Matthew McConaughey) client or show he was guilty after all, a case from the past is remembered with eerily similar details. Everything Haller believed to be true about his career choice is brought into question; the fact he defends criminals he knows are guilty due to the corruption on the side of police and DAs trying to pin even more onto them is somehow not enough anymore. He knows both sides of the coin—his daughter is from a coupling with prosecutor Maggie McPherson (Marisa Tomei)—and he’s got the street smarts necessary to keep the money flowing in and the clients going free. Cruising in his Lincoln with driver Earl (Laurence Mason), he becomes one with the people he defends, he feels for their plight and would never forgive himself for putting one unjustly behind bars.
And this is where Jesus Martinez (Michael Peña) comes in. Accused of murdering a prostitute and talked into taking a plea deal to avoid the gas chamber, his breakdown with Haller, insisting upon his innocence, is handled with the emotional gravitas that has made Peña one of my favorite actors of the past decade. The flashback of this meeting comes up after the lawyer’s new client engages him with the same tale of false accusations. It’s a convincing enough tale of wrong place at the wrong time, his confidence to stand trial and prove he didn’t hurt her accuser contagious. This well-to-do man, Louis Roulet (Ryan Phillippe), says all the right things and has the evidence to prove them. Besides the attempted murder weapon conclusively being his property, all appearances make the victim out to be a hustler who found a wealthy mark and took the chance to bleed him dry in order to leave a life of whoring behind. Haller feels compassion for this man, fearing the duty to help an innocent man remain free. But when you put Roulet’s and Martinez’s appeals side-by-side, it’s hard to not see one as honest and the other coldly calculated.
So Haller does his thing, driving around Beverly Hills, greasing palms with charm and promises of Christmas gifts, meeting with clients—new and old—while working one of the highest profile cases of his career. You’ve got a low-life inmate played by David Castro, connected with a biker gang led by Trace Atkins; a recently incarcerated cokehead hooker from Katherine Moennig, a regular client now unable to avoid jail time; and Shea Whigham’s documented snitch, all of which may seem like mere side plots to show Haller’s three dimensionality, but who eventually prove to be integral cogs in the central story. Every character brought into this puzzle of set-ups and double-crossings has real purpose and while this fact would usually come off to me as contrived, John Romano’s screenplay, adapted from Michael Connelly’s novel, always has a reason for its actions. The Lincoln Lawyer is a tale of bad people doing bad things, so the fact criminals are able to help put one of their own behind bars isn’t that far-fetched.
On par with the likes of Fracture and Primal Fear—perhaps lacking the extremely elevated performance skill of both, though—the suspense lies in the knowing and not knowing. We find out very quickly about hidden motivations on this case, the truth coming out concerning how Haller was lucky enough to land the gig in the first place. We watch him struggle with getting framed for murder, a conscience he thought was a little more gray than it proves to be, and the excruciating duty of representing someone he wants to see get murdered by the state. Loopholes in the judicial system that usually work as devices to save the day are the very reasons Haller must tread carefully, because in this instant they are his enemies. Double jeopardy, attorney/client privileges, and the bargaining game he once saw as a way to deal with the pain of losing all loom large before him, threatening to keep a guilty man on the streets and an innocent one off.
All the clichés are included like tough cops in Bryan Cranston and Michael Paré; the sexy ex-wife and occasional lover in Tomei’s largely periphery role; the means well but way over his head prosecutor in Josh Lucas; the doting mother who’d do anything for her son as Frances Fisher’s cold visage mimics that of her son, Phillippe; and the supporters like John Leguizamo’s shady cop and William H. Macy’s eccentric private investigator. You cannot deny the solid cast culled together to add even more legitimacy to the project, escalating the quality and making sure this story doesn’t end up languishing in the made-for-TV-movie echelon of procedural films. Even McConaughey once more proves he has the chops, always rising to the occasion when his setting is a courtroom rather than the beaches he generally inhabits shirtless. To go into more detail about the twists and revelations would be doing a disservice to a taut thriller that truly entertained me from start to finish. So I’ll simply suggest you throw out any preconception you had about Brad Furman’s first legitimate feature film—trust me, I had them too—and let the story work its magic.
 Mick Haller (Matthew McConaughey, left) and Louis Roulet (Ryan Phillippe, right) in THE LINCOLN LAWYER. Photo credit: Saeed Adyani.
 Val Valenzuela (John Leguizamo, left) and Mick Haller (Matthew McConaughey, right) in THE LINCOLN LAWYER. Photo credit: Saeed Adyani
 Maggie McPherson (Marisa Tomei) and Mick Haller (Matthew McConaughey) in THE LINCOLN LAWYER. Photo credit: Saeed Adyani