The Lincoln Lawyer isn't the first movie in which Matthew McConaughey has played a lawyer, but when he made A Time to Kill in 1996, he was an up-and-coming leading man with a few indie projects under his belt. Fifteen years later, McConaughey is a genuine movie star with a hefty reputation for playful eccentricity, so it's telling that instead of playing a heroic, crusading attorney this time out, in The Lincoln Lawyer he's a charming, sharp-witted wiseacre with a playful streak and a fondness for booze and the ladies. In short, he's a counselor fitted to McConaughey's unique specifications, and there's no arguing that the man seems to be having a lot of fun with the role; fortunately, he knows how to shift gears when the story starts taking a more serious and suspenseful turn.
In The Lincoln Lawyer, McConaughey plays Mick Haller, an L.A.-based trial lawyer who does most of his work out of the back of his Lincoln Town Car, sometimes chauffeured by his friend Earl (Laurence Mason) since Mick has been picked up a few times for driving under the influence. Haller isn't especially fussy about whom he defends, from bikers busted for growing pot to hookers picked up for taking cocaine in payment for sex, as long as they can pay the fee. But Haller is bright, shrewd, and knows how to work the system to the benefit of his clients, much to the chagrin of his ex-wife, Maggie McPherson (Marisa Tomei), a prosecutor for the D.A.'s office. Haller thinks he has finally caught the gravy train when bail bondsman Val Valenzuela (John Leguizamo) tips him off about a guy who has been picked up and needs a good lawyer, and fast. Louis Roulet (Ryan Phillippe) is the hard-partying son of an extremely wealthy real-estate tycoon, Mary Windsor (Frances Fisher), and he's been accused of assaulting a prostitute he picked up at a nightclub. Roulet loudly and angrily insists he's innocent, and Haller thinks he might just be telling the truth, especially since his family is willing to pay an exorbitant fee for his defense. Haller and his assistant, Frank Levin (William H. Macy), set out to find a way to sell the notion of Roulet's innocence to a jury; however, the deeper they dig, the more Levin and Haller become convinced that Roulet isn't as innocent as he claims. In fact, he may have some ugly skeletons in his closet, some of them connected to a case Haller worked on a few years before, and he's torn between his dedication to defending his client and his growing belief that he may be helping to put a sociopath back on the street while an innocent man rots in prison.
Matthew McConaughey is front and center from the first moment of The Lincoln Lawyer to the last, and there's little arguing that Mick Haller is a character that fits him like a glove, while McConaughey's performance keeps this picture on track throughout. The actor's natural charm and laid-back cool serve him well in the film's early innings, but just when you think this is just Matthew McConaughey being Matthew McConaughey, the film's comic elements fade, the crooks and their crimes get creepier, and he reminds us that he's a capable and versatile leading man who can deliver some heroics when circumstances demand it. He also has a superb supporting cast backing him up, particularly William H. Macy as his aging hippie sidekick, Frank Levin, Josh Lucas as Haller's courtroom opponent Ted Minton, and Ryan Phillippe as the thoroughly dislikable pretty boy Louis Roulet. And if Marisa Tomei doesn't get much to do but exchange some clever banter with Haller and look sexy, there's no arguing that she does both extremely well. Though John Romano's screenplay (based on the novel by Michael Connelly) sometimes piles up enough detail that you think you should check your scorecard to see what's happening to whom, director Brad Furman keeps the story moving at a snappy pace as he juggles the various plot points; and while it becomes a fairly obvious whodunit early on in the movie, Furman generates an impressive level of suspense as we watch Haller try to defend his client and make sure the bad guys get theirs at the same time. The Lincoln Lawyer is a popcorn movie through and through, but it's a smart, well-crafted popcorn movie that's clever enough to keep viewers guessing through much of its running time, and with McConaughey doing double duty as both hero and jester, it kills two hours with humor, style, and suspense.