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The Lincoln Lawyer

McConaughey Back in Court

Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars.

Whose side is Mickey Haller on? A slick, self-satisfied defense attorney who never misses a chance to hustle a client for a few dollars more, Mickey, the so-called Lincoln Lawyer, who operates out of his sleek black sedan, seems less interested in justice than in running up his bill, but beneath that veneer of cynicism lurks something resembling a soul.

Thatís part of his charm, of course. Played by Matthew McConaughey, in his first return to courtroom drama since his breakthrough performance in 1996ís A Time to Kill, Mickey is handsome, sharp-witted and capable of talking circles around Los Angeles Countyís toughest prosecutors. Yet smooth as he seems, his Achilles heel is the fear that he might someday represent an innocent man and fail to get him acquitted.

Is Louis Roulet (Ryan Phillippe) just such a client? A real-estate mogul accused of rape and attempted murder, he proclaims his innocence fiercely enough that Mickey is inclined to believe him. And why not? His story adds up. Best of all, heís got deep pockets and a burning desire to win back his good name.

Louis is hardly an innocent, as anyone whoís seen The Lincoln Lawyerís highly suggestive ad campaign has probably gathered, but the extent of his guilt must remain a mystery. Regardless of the verdict, the case forces Mickey to readjust his moral compass, to choose between the pursuit of justice and a fat paycheck.

Nothing new there, but the pleasures of director Brad Furmanís assured sophomore effort (after 2007ís little-seen The Take) are substantial. As a briskly paced whodunit, inspired by Michael Connellyís bestselling novel, Lincoln shows enough twists and turns to seem fresh. As legal thrillers go, it delivers.

Also commendable is the casting. Not since the underappreciated Sahara (2005) has McConaughey seemed so energized and perfectly in his element, casually playing his rivals for saps and massaging his characterís oversized ego with finesse. Paired with a shaggy-haired William H. Macy as his lead investigator, he is the center of his own universe, which, for two hours, seems an exciting place to be.