After films like Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, Surfer Dude, and Fool's Gold, Matthew McConaughey hasn't exactly had the best track record as of late. So can a movie about a money-grubbing lawyer with a license plate that reads "NTGUILTY" actually be the way to break his pattern of bad movies? The answer is yes: The Lincoln Lawyer is an entertaining thriller that does more than put the actor's charm on display.
Based on the novel by Michael Connelly, the film centers on Mick Haller (McConaughey), a smooth-talking criminal attorney who's a hustler to his core. He represents the underbelly of LA — bikers, prostitutes, druggies — and his methods of doing business are anything but conventional. Instead of an office, Mick prefers to work from his car (a Lincoln town car per the title) where he wheels and deals. As one character remarks, Mick would've done pretty well for himself on the streets; he knows whose palm to grease to get what he wants whether it's a photographer with valuable video or a local cop. That may make Mick sound like a two-dimensional sleazeball and sometimes he is, but there's also more to him than meets the eye.
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Mick has run into his share of shady lowlifes over the years, but perhaps none has ever frightened him as much as his latest client, Louis Roulet (Ryan Phillippe). A playboy with deep pockets, Louis has been convicted of assault after being arrested in a beaten-up prostitute's apartment with blood on his hands. He swears he's innocent, and Mick believes him — at first. But after inconsistencies crop up in Louis's story, Mick starts to question the man he's dealing with and his own conscience. That's the thing about Mick; even though he represents some scumbags, he's actually kind of a good guy himself. The father to a young daughter, he's still on good terms with his ex-wife (Marisa Tomei) and his friendship with his detective (William H. Macy) is surprisingly sweet amidst their sarcastic back-and-forth banter.
Mick is a likable character thanks to the script, but it's McConaughey who really makes him work. From the opening scene when he flashes his white smile at the camera to when he's staring down Louis in fury, McConaughey embodies Mick's range of emotions and elevates what's essentially a popcorn flick. The rest of the actors turn in solid performances as well. Tomei plays tough but vulnerable, and Phillippe runs the gamut from a stuck-up but silly brat to downright psychotic.
There's a surprising amount of humor for a legal thriller, but some of the laughs are unintentional as a result of the dialogue. Mick is supposed to be a slick guy, and the script wants to knock you over the head to remind you of this fact, but in most cases, McConaughey pulls it off. With his Southern drawl delivery, he's still delightful to watch — and he doesn't even have to take off his shirt.