The hands behind "The Lincoln Lawyer" are all old ones when it comes to crime. Screenwriter John Romano served time as writer-producer on "Hills Street Blues," "L.A. Law" and "Monk," while director Brad Furman turned to crime in his first feature, "The Take." Meanwhile, the film is based on the first Mickey Haller novel by ace crime novelist Michael Connelly, who literally reinvented the L.A. noir novel with his realistic procedural series starring iconoclastic police detective Harry Bosch and now his "Lincoln Lawyer" series featuring attorney-at-law Michael "Mick" Haller.
So no great surprise here that "The Lincoln Lawyer" turns out to be superior piece of crime storytelling with some characters clearly designed for recurring roles (in other novels and perhaps other films should this one do well) while others are designated for showy guest appearances as larger-than-life evildoers or tough-guy eccentrics. The film is only "superior" though, not great. The themes feel shopworn and devotee of crime fiction can point to the any number of antecedents for these characters.
All of which may add up to a couple of above-average weeks at the box office for Lionsgate and perhaps an even more handsome payoff in home entertainment. Viewers may sense this is the kind of bad-guys-vs.-even-worse-guys film they can check out any time on TV, cable or Netflix.
Its ambulance-chaser protagonist, Haller (Matthew McConaughey, returning to the profession that established his career with 1996's "A Time to Kill"), is anything but new, only perhaps his MO is a bit unusual: He conducts most of his business in the backseat of a chauffeured Lincoln Continental. (Surely you didn't suppose there was something Lincoln-esque about a Michael Connelly hero, did you?) Its license plate reads NTGUILTY, which is a condition he never finds any client, mostly petty thieves, hookers, drug-dealing bikers and the occasional low-level killer he handles through his knowledgeable exploitation of the legal system.
Then thanks to a paid-off bail bondsman (John Leguizamo), he lands a rich Beverly Hills playboy (Ryan Phillippe), accused of battery and attempted murder of a women. As always, a client adamantly declares his innocence — the whole thing, he insists, is a set-up to take a rich kid to the cleaners — but for once Haller thinks it might be true. Instead of pleas bargains and deals, he may actually have to defend his client in court.
Unfortunately, crime fiction has turned everyone into a cynic. So you are privileged to smell a rat the street-smart lawyer can't. Even Haller's faithful investigator (William H. Macy, still in long tresses for his "Shameless" Showtime series) picks up the odor.
The story moves along at a swift clip, introducing key characters who may play roles in upcoming episodes — Haller's ex-wife and a prosecuting attorney no less for a little of that Adam's Ribgive-and-take (Marisa Tomei, brutally underused); his faithful chauffeur (Laurence Mason); and opposing attorney (Josh Lucas) — plus minor, seemingly inconsequential ones, that suddenly play major tasks at the climax.
The strong scent of deja vu hangs over everything — a cop even asks how Haller can sleep at night given the scum he defends — but nothing prevents the movie from its basic job of entertainment. OK, far-fetched entertainment, that you can pick apart at your leisure after the slightly out-of-left-field climax. (It's more like third base.)
Every now and then an actor appears to delivers such rock-solid character work that you can only imagine what "The Lincoln Lawyer" might have been with less reliance on rote characters and situations. Such an actor is Michael Pena, who plays a poor schnook Haller once defended only for him to wind up in San Quentin prison.
As L.A. crime movies have used up the usual locations, this one wanders into Echo Park, Boyle Heights, Inglewood and the like to pick up worn-out, interestingly unconventional neighborhoods that are new to film.
So call the film NTBAD. It accomplishes its job in a smooth, cool manner with showy performances, the economy of TV-style camera set-ups and a touch of rap on its soundtrack. In March, you can do so much worse.