Matthew McConaughey's mojo is working quite nicely in "The Lincoln Lawyer," a thriller in which innocence and being found "not guilty" are not the same thing.
All twang and confidence, Mr. Just Keep Livin' hits the very notes that made him so durn winning in his indie debut "Dazed and Confused" and his big- screen breakthrough "A Time to Kill."
As Los Angeles defense attorney Mick Haller, McConaughey delivers a mix of ethical confusion, moral concern and cocky physical ease.
The slickster lawyer is the invention of bestselling novelist Michael Connelly. (The movie is directed by Brad Furman with a screenplay by John Romano.) Years ago, at a Dodgers game, Connelly struck up a conversation with a lawyer who said his office was his car. A character was born.
So don't be fooled by the title. This is not a Civil War saga. For that you must wait until next month for Robert Redford's "The Conspirator."
Instead, the Lincoln referred to is the black, boxy Lincoln Continental that Mick works from.
Maybe it's the star's drawl. Or that beautiful beast of a Detroit machine. Or perhaps it's the R&B meets hip-hop tunes and Mick's cool cat driver Earl (Laurence Mason). Whatever the combo, the movie moves with a better- than-blue-eyed soulfulness.
Mick's clients tend toward lowly and rough. A biker gang pays him a visit on a L.A. roadway one hazy afternoon. His vanity plate reads "NT GLTY."
He plies the angles. But Mick's canny gaming gets a workout once a bail bondsman friend (John Leguizamo) sends a deep-pockets client his way. Accused of the brutal assault on a young woman, Louis Roulet is the baby-faced scion of real estate maven Mary Windsor (Frances Fisher).
Ryan Phillippe does a convincing job making Roulet ambiguous. Does his lip tremble and his voice waver as he declares his innocence because he didn't do it - or because he's certain he can snow everyone? Is he entitled? Or is he evil?
The cast is ace. William H. Macy brings seen-it-all likability to Frank Levin, Mick's gumshoe. Michael Pena is touching as an accused man who crumbles in agony when Mick tells him to cut a deal.
Marisa Tomei serves as anchor and foil as Maggie, Mick's ex and mother of their child. She's also a prosecutor. The script hints but never sledgehammers the notion that this professional divide might have lead to their differences, which, thanks to some nice chemistry, hardly seem irreconcilable.
While former client Jesus Martinez (Pena) waits out a life sentence in San Quentin, doubt begins to nibble on the bud of Mick's conscience. Is the agile lawyer being out maneuvered?
In a courtroom scene, the cinematographer's encircling camera work captures Mick in a whirlpool. The thrill comes in seeing how - or if - he can swim out of this dizzying mess?
"The Lincoln Lawyer" is not a feat of genre-breaking design. But it is a well- oiled machine. And those who have known the pleasures of driving one of Detroit's beautiful dinosaurs - a Lincoln Continental, perhaps - will recognize and appreciate the oh-so smooth ride.
"The Lincoln Lawyer," a Lionsgate release, is rated R for some violence, sexual content and language. Running time: 119 minutes. Three stars out of four.