Saturday, September 20, 2014

Neglected Gem #62: True Believer (1989)

In True Believer, James Woods plays Eddie Dodd, a New York lawyer who made his name on political and civil liberties issues in the sixties. Eddie still likes to present himself as a renegade – he tokes up in his office, he eschews traditional workday dress, even in the courtroom, and he wears his hair in a ponytail. (The salt-and-pepper color gives it the appearance of a powdered wig – he could be an aging Revolutionary War hero.) But the only clients he accepts these days are transparently guilty dope dealers whom he gets off on technicalities and who reimburse him in drug money. He justifies his office full of sleazes by claiming, “The last struggle in the war for constitutional rights is being waged over drugs,” and on some level he believes he’s still sticking it to the bastards in power every time he wins a case. The truth is, though, that he’s grown as cynical as any old sixties warrior: he’s come to believe everyone’s guilty. It’s a fresh-faced law-school grad named Roger Baron (Robert Downey, Jr.), a long-time admirer who turned down more prestigious offers to take a job as Dodd’s assistant, who stirs his dormant spirit. He gets Eddie to take on the case of a young Korean named Shu Kai Kim (Yuji Okumoto), in prison for eight years for an alleged street killing in Chinatown, who’s just knifed a fellow inmate, the member of a racist gang, in self-defense. Eddie agrees to reopen the Chinatown case, though he goes in assuming that, like all his clients, Kim is guilty as hell. But then a punk beats him up outside his apartment, threatening worse if he defends “the chink,” and that makes him angry and curious. The deeper he digs, the more certain he becomes that Kim was framed. Soon Eddie Dodd is back in the fray.

The tale of the old pro, rusty from age or alcohol or disillusionment, who rises to the occasion and makes a triumphant comeback, is hardly new; in movies it goes back at least to Thomas Mitchell as the soused doc in Stagecoach (1939). But at the helm of True Believer is Joseph Ruben, who in the late eighties was one of the best genre directors in Hollywood (Dreamscape, The Stepfather), and Wesley Strick’s written a taut, trimly detailed script. The Kim case turns out to be the ideal choice for resurrecting Dodd. The handling of Kim’s arrest and trial begins to smack of corruption, and Dodd gets to challenge the chief D.A. (Kurtwood Smith), who represents a slick indifference Dodd detests. Unearthing the facts of the eight-year-old Chinatown murder is exciting for Eddie in a way nothing has been in years; it quickens his pulse. And the way Ruben paces and edits the picture, it has the same effect on us.

Director Joseph Ruben.
As a piece of craftsmanship, True Believer is a beauty. (George Bowers is the first-rate editor; John W. Lindley, who collaborated with Ruben on The Stepfather, shot the movie, which features some magnificent silver-and-white-toned flashback sequences.) And it’s buoyed up by a hoppity sense of humor that’s like a continual, bracing kick in the pants – Ruben brings the jokes in on the off-beat, so you’re never quite prepared for them. (The one scene that doesn’t quite work – a climactic confrontation in a garage – is puzzling and the tone feels off, but it doesn’t disturb the film’s relentless flow.)

Margaret Colin, as Eddie’s private eye, has a wonderful sweet-and-sour presence. Okumoto and Smith do fine character work, as do Miguel Fernandes as a strong-armer who runs a plumbing supply shop staffed entirely with ex-cons like himself, and Tom Bower in a memorable bit as a paranoic. But the film’s main ace is James Woods. His readings has a speedy resilience; he turns the most unlikely lines into quips, and his courtroom delivery – a rich blend of indignation, noisy attack, and sly, rebound wit – is a constant adrenalin high. The scene in which Dodd, challenged by Roger to take Kim’s case, faces off his demons and comes up fighting, is eloquent and precise; it breathes life into an old platitude. Woods gets us cheering for Eddie’s comeback by convincing us of his humanity. Downey, amusingly cast as a bespectacled idealist, is charmingly modest in their scenes together; he hangs back, as if he knew this was Woods’s big one. Downey, early in his career, conveys the joy of sharing the screen with a master actor; there’s a grin lurking beneath his performance.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.


  1. Thanks for highlighting this true neglected gem, which holds up marvelously today. But a small correction...the movie's set in New York, not San Francisco (though the real-life character that screenwriter Strick modeled him on was in fact a SF lawyer).

  2. We missed that. Thank you. Most definitely set in New York.