‘The Lincoln Lawyer’ – The Beginning of the McConaughey Renaissance

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written in 2011, back when the McConaughey renaissance was just beginning. This almost marks the 1,000th post on The Ultimate Rabbit website!

Okay, now how many dramas and thrillers featuring a lawyer as the main character have we had these past few years? Heck, how many novels featuring lawyers have been thrust at us? After everything written by John Grisham and Scott Turow, you’d think the world would have had enough of legal thrillers whether or not they made it to the silver screen. It all reminds me of that joke we’ve all heard:

“What do you call a thousand lawyers at the bottom of the ocean? A good start!”

As a result, I was in no immediate hurry to check out the latest legal thriller adapted into a movie, “The Lincoln Lawyer.” This particular one is about a defense lawyer who has no scruples about what he does, but he ends up getting involved in a case which haunts his conscience like no other. Looking this plot line over, it sounds like “Primal Fear” all over again. How many times have we been down this road? Yes, I agree, far too many.

But alas, while “The Lincoln Lawyer” breaks no new ground in the legal thriller genre, it does contain many clever twists up its sleeve which distinguishes it from others of its ilk. It is based on the novel of the same name by Michael Connelly who is best known for writing detective novels and crime fiction. One of his previous books, “Blood Work,” was turned into a movie by Clint Eastwood, and it is one of the very few Eastwood directed movies which really sucked. It turns out, however, that “The Lincoln Lawyer” was actually Connelly’s first legal novel, and it introduced the world to one of his most popular literary creations, Mickey Haller.

Mickey Haller is a criminal defense attorney who spends his time defending the kind of people we would all rather see behind bars. Instead of a regular office, he works out of his Lincoln Town Car which he gets driven around in by Earl (Laurence Mason), a former client of his who is working off legal fees he owes. He has an ex-wife, Margaret McPherson (Marisa Tomei), whom he is still on good terms with even though she works on the opposite side of the court as a prosecutor, and they have a daughter whom they both dote on, and you at times wonder why these two ever bothered to divorce. If James Carville and Mary Matlin can maintain a marriage, why can’t these two?

Anyway, Mickey ends up defending Louis Roulet (Ryan Phillippe), a Beverly Hills realtor who is accused of viciously assaulting a prostitute. The case, after some research, looks to be an open and shut deal for this ever so confident lawyer. However, more problems arise to where things are not what they appear to be.

That’s all I’m going to say about the plot. To say anymore would be to give away a good deal of what happens. What I will say is that it makes for a good story in how someone has to find a way to find justice without being forever disbarred from practicing law.

Much of the success of “The Lincoln Lawyer” belongs to the actor chosen to play Mickey, Matthew McConaughey. After seeing him in so many useless romantic comedies, he gets one of his best roles to date here. Believe me when I say he is perfectly cast in this role, and he nails Mickey’s sly confidence and cocky demeanor as he works his way through the courtroom to get what he wants and needs. Mickey is to an extent an amoral character, one who appears to care less about whether or not those he represents will commit crimes again after he gets them off. But McConaughey is so cool here that we find it impossible to hate Mickey, and we love his (if you’ll forgive the expression) “Rico Suave” ways which he utilizes around everyone he meets. Whether or not you agree with what he does, we all would love to have his coolness and persuasiveness when it comes to talking with and influencing others.

It also helps that McConaughey is surrounded by a great cast of actors who give him plenty to work with. Tomei remains as terrific and super sexy as ever in her portrayal of Margaret, and she shares strong chemistry with McConaughey throughout. We also get an entertaining turn from the always dependable William H. Macy as investigator Frank Levin, Haller’s right-hand man who succeeds in getting the facts whether he does it legally or illegally. We also get strong turns from John Leguizamo, Michael Peña, and Frances Fisher who all bring their best selves to this material.

But one performance I want to single out here is Ryan Phillippe’s. As a Beverly Hills playboy who has had everything handed to him on a silver platter throughout his life, Phillippe excels in convincing everyone around and the audience of Louis’ intentions. Still, there is that glimmer in Louis’ eyes which suggests not everything he says or implies is on the level. Phillippe has been better known these past few years as Mr. Reese Witherspoon, but however things went down in that relationship, he deserves to be noted for his acting here and in other movies he has been in. Watching him onscreen here is riveting because he always leaves you guessing as to what will happen next.

Directing “The Lincoln Lawyer” is Brad Furman, and the only movie he previously directed is “The Take.” I really liked how vividly he captured the urban environment of Los Angeles, and it never felt like he was filming on some ordinary Hollywood set. With a story like this, Furman could have easily gone in that direction, but he gives each scene a solid reality which doesn’t feel all that far from the one we inhabit. He also keeps the suspense up throughout and gives us some tension filled scenes which keep us at full attention as if someone is about to come from behind us and bash our brains in.

Like I said, “The Lincoln Lawyer” does not reinvent the legal thriller genre, but it reinvigorates the genre with a strong and enigmatic main character and a story with twists we haven’t seen in some time. In a way, this movie brings McConaughey around full circle as he made his big breakthrough in the film adaptation of John Grisham’s “A Time to Kill.” Soon or later, this man who keeps telling us to just “keep on livin’” had to play another lawyer. I hope for his sake he gets to do a follow up to this one as he has this character down flat. Maybe others could have done it better, but who comes to mind as quickly as McConaughey?

* * * out of * * * *

The Infiltrator

The Infiltrator poster

It’s very tempting to call this movie “Breaking Bad” meets “Donnie Brasco” especially with Bryan “Heisenberg” Cranston starring in it. “The Infiltrator” is about a U.S. Customs Service special agent, Robert Mazur, who goes, as Eddie Murphy put it in “Beverly Hills Cop II,” “deep, deep, deep, deep undercover” to infiltrate one of the world’s largest drug cartels. But more importantly, getting inside this particular drug cartel leads him to the money laundering operation run by the infamous Pablo Escobar who was once called “the king of cocaine.” Yes, this movie is “based on a true story,” but don’t let that dissuade you from seeing it.

“The Infiltrator” takes us back to the year 1985 when the internet didn’t exist, “Miami Vice” was on the air and the “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign was the subject of every other commercial we watched on television. Mazur has just come off a mission where he suffered a potentially career-ending injury, but he’s invited to participate in one more mission before retiring for good. Of course, we all know that the last mission will always be the most dangerous one that will test him more than ever before, and we do get the obligatory scene of the hero washing his face and staring at himself in the mirror as he silently questions himself. Also complicating issues is the fact that Mazur has his wife Evelyn (Juliet Aubrey) and two kids waiting for him back at home, and his wife can take only so much more of her husband’s work as every time he walks out the door might be the last time she sees him.

I couldn’t help but think of “Donnie Brasco” as I watched “The Infiltrator” as both films deal with undercover officers with families of their own who get so deep into their work that they cannot help but feel for the criminals they are trying to take down as they get too close to them in the process. This movie never comes across as the kind of undercover movie we haven’t seen a number of times before, but director Brad Furman still manages to keep the intensity strong and tight as Mazur and his colleagues face life or death situations more often than not.

Furman has previously directed “The Lincoln Lawyer” which starred Matthew McConaughey as the defense attorney of many Michael Connelly novels, Mickey Haller. Now that movie managed to be a very entertaining legal thriller while bringing nothing new to genre, and Furman does the same thing here with “The Infiltrator.” There are scenes which remind us of many other movies we have seen before, but Furman manages to tweak those familiar situations to where we are forced to expect the unexpected. Just when you think you have seen everything an undercover movie has to offer, along comes this one which really fries your nerves at certain moments.

It also helps that Furman has quite the cast to work with here. Cranston has been on a roll ever since playing Walter White on “Breaking Bad,” and it is fascinating to see him play the kind of character whose mission it is to take down the Walter Whites of the world. It’s a complicated character as Mazur is dedicated to his job and his family, but not always in the same order. Cranston makes us empathize with a man whose priorities get tangled up as he descends deeper into the drug cartel world. Just watch him in the scene where he has to “audition” to meet one of the cartel’s leaders. Cranston makes you feel the frightening predicament of a man who may have gone one step too far, and he imbues the role with an integrity few other actors are capable of doing.

Cranston is also surrounded by a terrific cast of actors like John Leguizamo who brings his uncontainable energy to the role of Emir Abreu, Mazur’s partner. Leguizamo has one of the movie’s most unnerving scenes as he is forced to defend himself against another person who attempts to blow his cover, and watching the actor play it cool under such intense circumstances is thrilling to watch.

Then there’s Benjamin Bratt who plays Roberto Alcanio, Mazur’s contact and Escobar’s top lieutenant. Bratt makes Roberto into a man as charming as he is ruthless as well as someone far more interesting than the usual clichéd drug dealer we see in movies like these. You want to hate Roberto, but Bratt keeps you from doing that as you become as deeply involved in his family’s plight as he makes this character seem like a cool, down to earth dude even though he is also a vicious drug dealer.

There’s also Amy Ryan (“Gone Baby Gone”) who plays Mazur’s chief officer, Bonni Tischler. She’s a real fireball from start to finish as she barks out orders at her colleagues and has no interest in wasting time on frivolous matters. Ryan makes Bonni into a no-nonsense character who you do not want to mess with as she is not about to let those who work for her take advantage of a situation unless it is for a really, really, really good reason.

Also terrific is Diane Kruger who plays Mazur’s partner and undercover fiancée, and she really hold her own opposite Cranston as her character of Kathy plunges headlong into an assignment she initially seems fully unprepared for. Much like the German actress she played in “Inglorious Basterds,” Kruger (no relation to Freddy) shows a fearlessness as she unveils the many talents Kathy has to get close to the criminals, and she also portrays the perils of undercover work as her emotions threaten to get in the way.

“The Infiltrator” is nothing new or groundbreaking in movies, but it does get the job done thanks to terrific performances and some truly intense scenes that really leave you guessing as to what will happen. It also provides us with a main character who is as interested in taking down bankers who launder drug money as he is in going after drug dealers. With the “War on Drugs” continuing to be fought in a futile manner, watching this movie made me think of something George Carlin once said:

“Drug dealers aren’t afraid to die. They’re already killing each other every day on the streets by the hundreds. Drive-bys, gang shootings, they’re not afraid to die. Death penalty doesn’t mean anything unless you use it on people who are afraid to die. Like… THE BANKERS WHO LAUNDER THE DRUG MONEY!”

* * * out of * * * *

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.