Brad Furman’s The Lincoln Lawyer feels like–and in fact, later became–a TV show. Specifically, it feels like the extra-long pilot to establish the show’s characters, universe, and recurring conflicts. (This is all unsurprising, considering it’s based on the first novel in a series.) Its credits even feel uncannily like TV show credits, complete with interspersed shots of Mickey Haller (Matthew McConaughey).
None of this is an insult. The Lincoln Lawyer isn’t cinematic, but that’s not the same as saying it isn’t good; it’s just that its strengths are the strengths of a TV pilot, and this is a damn good TV pilot. I kind of wish I knew I had more of it to watch.
Mickey Haller is the kind of lawyer a traditional procedural would usually dismiss as scummy but who fits right in with a certain hot-but-sleazy-but-honorable-in-his-way antihero mold. He’s a defense attorney who is unapologetic about his job; as far as he’s concerned, he’s making sure the legal system works the way it was meant to. Everybody deserves a defense, and if the prosecution didn’t get sloppy and greedy, he wouldn’t have so much material to work with. This attitude put him at odds with his ex Maggie, a prosecutor played by Marisa Tomei, and it hasn’t exactly won him friends in high places. That’s fine, though, because he can make do with the people he meets on the lower rungs of society, like biker gangs and opportunistic bail bondsmen. After a DUI, he started doing business out of the back of a chauffeured Lincoln Town Car, and you get the feeling he likes the vibe of disreputable independence.
Mickey’s father told him that the one client you never want is an innocent man, because it makes it impossible to lose or settle in good conscience. You don’t want the stakes to be so high that a not-guilty verdict is the only acceptable outcome. Accept guilty clients, treat them fairly, do your best for them, and then–regardless of the results–move on.
For years, Mickey’s been doing just fine with that. But then he gets an unexpectedly high-profile case: the wealthy Louis Roulet (Ryan Phillippe) is charged with assaulting a sex worker. Phillippe has done a lot with his particular brand of spoiled, sulky prettiness, and he puts it to good use here. We might already be suspicious of “golden boy claims to have been set up,” but Phillippe’s casting adds to our trepidation. Something is rotten beneath the surface, but Mickey doesn’t realize the trap he’s in until it’s closed neatly around him. It will take skill to get out of it, and the movie gets particular pleasure and tension out of long scenes of Mickey-the-lawyer working against Mickey-the-person; it gives the courtroom drama an unusual frisson.
There’s nothing especially surprising here, but it’s all well-executed and satisfying in an old school kind of way. And I have to mention the cast–this is a film stuffed to the gills with enjoyable character actors, as if, having satisfied movie star requirements with McConaughey, Tomei, and Phillippe, it could indulge in some beautifully chosen eccentricity: John Leguizamo, William H. Macy, Michael Peña, Frances Fisher, William H. Macy, Bryan Cranston, Shea Wigham, Bob Gunton, and Laurence Mason. (That’s at least two Shield alumni!) Josh Lucas, neither fish nor fowl, also does fine work as Mickey’s opposite number. It’s all well-worth watching if you like slightly cynical courtroom/legal thrillers. It wears its genre comfortably.
The Lincoln Lawyer is streaming on HBO Max.