It's been awhile since Matthew McConaughey was at the center of a solid, watchable drama -- at least since We Are Marshall in 2005.
But he's got a winner with The Lincoln Lawyer. Based on a best-selling novel by Michael Connelly, Lincoln Lawyer is a shrewd legal thriller that is as much detective story as courtroom spellbinder. McConaughey seems born to play Mick Haller, the defense attorney at the center of the tale.
The title refers to how Haller rolls with his law practice: Instead of an office, he works out of the backseat of a Lincoln Town Car, chauffeured by a former client who's working off a debt. Haller is a defense lawyer, always on the run, always looking for that big case with a wealthy client that will pay the bills for a while.
He thinks he's found it when a bail-bondman buddy (John Leguizamo) puts him in touch with a rich-kid real estate agent, Louis Roulet (Ryan Phillippe), who's been arrested for attempted rape-murder. The client claims innocence and Haller works his magic to get him out on bail.
But very quickly things turn hinky. Roulet keeps getting tripped up on his story, overlooking crucial facts as he tells it to Haller. Still, Mick isn't interested in guilt or innocence; he's about winning the case. And he's convinced that he's got the cards to force the D.A. to fold on the charges: a video that shows the woman in question is actually a hooker who invited Roulet into her home as a client. The assistant D.A. (Josh Lucas) has other ideas.
It soon becomes clear to Haller that, in fact, Roulet is not only guilty as charged - but may have been involved in a murder that sent one of Haller's former clients to prison a few years earlier. But attorney-client privilege prevents Haller from revealing what he knows or suspects. Nor can he quit or intentionally tank the case.
What he does do is both clever and plausible, thanks to Connelly's cunning plotting and John Romano's sure-handed script (a great leap forward after Nights in Rodanthe and Intolerable Cruelty). Director Brad Furman finds visual ways to incorporate flashbacks without derailing the fast-moving story.
He also has a stellar cast to flesh out Connelly's nicely matched set of characters, starting with McConaughey as Haller. McConaughey captures the sense of an attorney whose idealism has been replaced by laser-guided pragmatism - but who mourns the loss of his own ability to believe in a client's innocence. His Mick Haller doesn't game the system and he's not a puppetmaster - just a guy who knows which strings to pull or buttons to push at key moments, though the outcome is never assured. McConaughey plays him with hints of the conscience he has all but buried.
Phillippe is silky and insinuating as his pretty-boy client, while Josh Lucas has a smugness that's wonderfully punctured as the assistant D.A. Marisa Tomei (as Haller's ex-wife), William H. Macy (as Haller's investigator), Shea Whigham (as a jailhouse snitch) and several others make their roles valuable and vibrant.
The Hollywood legal thriller has been watered- and dumbed-down over the past decade. But The Lincoln Lawyer aims high, assuming that its audience will be able to follow complex plotting and take delight in its twists and turns. It's a movie that stays one step ahead of the viewer - and pays off in the end.