I’ve always believed that the measure of a great lead actor is how much they can single-handedly elevate a film with their presence. Throughout the 1980s and 90s, James Woods often took starring roles in movies that might have otherwise been completely forgettable if he didn’t leave such a memorable impression. On paper, films like Salvador, Against All Odds, Best Seller, Cop, The Hard Way and John Carpenter’s Vampires might sound pretty routine, but Woods would always bring such headstrong energy to his performances that he usually succeeded at elevating the material. In the later stages of his career, James Woods has transitioned from lead roles to mainly playing supporting roles, but more often than not, he manages to steal the film. For example, the recent Rod Lurie remake of the Sam Peckinpah classic, Straw Dogs, was completely forgettable and by-the-numbers, but Woods still managed to make an impression with his strong performance as the town’s drunken, violent football coach. Even in a complete stinker, such as the Sylvester Stallone action film, The Specialist, Woods somehow manages to be entertaining and make the viewer perk up whenever he is onscreen. One of Woods’ strongest and most underrated starring vehicles was a 1989 courtroom thriller called True Believer. The film’s storyline seems pretty conventional and while it does manage to keep you entertained while you’re watching it, True Believer seems like the type of movie that you would instantly forget about once it’s over. However, James Woods brings such hypnotic energy to his lead role that True Believer winds up being more than just an extended Law & Order episode.
The film opens with a terrific introductory scene for its protagonist. An idealistic young law clerk named Roger Baron (Robert Downey Jr.) has just arrived in New York City with hopes of working for a former civil rights lawyer named Eddie Dodd (James Woods). Roger enters the courtroom during a trial for a drug dealer and introduces himself to the well-dressed man whom he believes is Eddie. It turns out this man is actually the drug dealer, and that the grungy-looking man next to him with the ponytail is the real Eddie Dodd. Eddie then proceeds to deliver an impassioned speech to the jury about how the dealer’s civil rights were violated when he was arrested on drug charges and manages to get his client acquitted. Roger had turned down several good job offers to work for Eddie because he greatly admired his work in civil rights, but is horribly disappointed to discover that Eddie is now a complete pot-smoking burnout with a law practice which is built around getting guilty drug dealers acquitted on technicalities. However, Eddie’s former ideals start to surface again when takes on the case of a young Korean man named Shu Kai Kim (Yuji Okumoto), who is currently serving the eighth year of a long prison sentence for a gang-related murder in Chinatown and has just been forced to kill a fellow inmate in self-defense. Eddie soon begins to believe that Shu is actually innocent of the murder he was convicted for in the first place and eventually earns his client a retrial, forcing Eddie to go toe-to-toe with the city’s hard-ass district attorney, Robert Reynard (Kurtwood Smith) and pretty much break the law himself on numerous occasions in order to win the case.
The character of Eddie Dodd is based on Tony Serra, a very eccentric civil rights lawyer who is noted for winning several high profile cases throughout his career. One of those cases involved a Korean immigrant named Chol Soo Lee, who was wrongfully convicted the murder of a San Francisco Chinatown gang leader before Serra helped him win his freedom. It’s obvious that this case provided screenwriter Wesley Strick with a lot of inspiration for True Believer, though he uses it to structure a more convoluted story involving police corruption and conspiracies. Despite some obvious contrivances, Strick’s screenplay is fairly well-structured and it’s fun watching his plot unfold. Of course, it features the usual clichés of the genre with surprise witnesses, last-minute revelations and dramatic courtroom speeches, but Eddie Dodd is such a great character and James Woods invests him with so much energy and intensity that True Believer is elevated from being just another disposable legal thriller. It’s quite fascinating to watch Eddie’s transformation from a burnt-out pothead early on in the film to a guy who will put his absolute heart and soul into getting his seemingly innocent client released. Eddie’s original assignment is to get Shu acquitted of the prison murder, but what’s interesting is how he quickly he decides to turn it into a crusade to prove his client never should have been imprisoned in the first place. At the outset, there really doesn’t seem to be much compelling evidence that Shu is innocent, but it’s obvious that Eddie WANTS him to be innocent so badly because he is desperate to use his legal skills to do something noble again. Eddie has never had any qualms about getting guilty clients acquitted, but if he was to discover that Shu really was guilty all along, it would probably destroy him. It’s interesting to watch Eddie evolve from a burnout who gets guilty clients off by exploiting civil liberties violations, but has his passions re-ignited once he takes on an innocent client who really HAS had his civil liberties violated.
I have no idea if there was so much depth and texture to the character of Eddie Dodd in the original screenplay or if James Woods brought a lot of these nuances to the role himself, but Eddie is just riveting to watch every time he’s onscreen. While this is Woods’ film all the way, he does get solid support from the rest of the cast. Roger Baron is one of the more ordinary characters that Robert Downey Jr. has ever had to play and it’s essentially a thankless role, with Roger being forced to be the level-headed straight man to the more eccentric Eddie, but the two actors work well together and have good chemistry. Considering where Downey’s life would be headed in subsequent years, it’s quite amusing to see him as a clean-cut, straight-laced guy who acts appalled about Eddie smoking pot in his office. Of course, given the recent resurgence of Downey’s career, I would definitely love to see him and James Woods reteam together to make a film these days. Kurtwood Smith was one of the best actors during this time period at playing characters you just loved to hate, and he does great work as the arrogant, sanctimonious Reynard. While True Believer opened to generally good reviews on its initial release, it was not a box office success and pretty much faded from the public eye rather quickly. In 1991, an attempt was made to revive this character when an Eddie Dodd TV series made it to air with Treat Williams in the title role, but the show lasted a grand total of six episodes before it was cancelled. It’s somewhat ironic that True Believer was the basis for a TV series since, on paper, the film probably looked like a standard made-for-TV drama, which may be the reason few people went to see it. However, as underrated as it may be, True Believer is well worth watching, thanks mainly to James Woods’ high-voltage performance, and is the perfect case study of how casting the right actor in the lead role can turn fairly standard material into something memorable.