Movies We Like
What can I say? I’m a sucker for court room, investigative drama; no matter how pedestrian. The ace-up-the-sleeve for True Believer is the dynamic performance by James Woods. Working at the peak of his acting powers, Woods plays a once celebrated, radical lawyer, now burned out and living on defending drug dealers. Woods, a wiry and intense actor, had spent years specializing in unhinged types, before he really came to the public's attention in the late '70s with his work (opposite Meryl Streep) in the TV miniseries Holocaust, and his searing performance as a petty criminal in The Onion Field. He spent most of the '80s in potentially important films that didn’t break him out (Once Upon a Time in America, Against All Odds), fascinating misses (Videodrome, The Boost), with some little seen gems mixed in (Fast-Walking, Split Image). In ’86 he finally broke through, winning every major TV award for the small-screen movie Promise and getting his first Oscar nomination for his powerhouse work in Oliver Stone’s Salvador. True Believer fell in the post-award buzz period, when he was scoring those big-star leading-man roles. Here he fully delivers on the promise.
Though wrapped up in a mystery, True Believer actually works better as one of those what-ever-happened-to-our-heroes-from-the-'60s? movies (The Big Chill, Running on Empty, etc.). The true believer in question here is Edward Dodd (Woods), a sorta William Kunstler like lawyer who once fought for civil liberties, civil rights and other groovy ideals, but now, even though he still has his long hair and openly smokes pot, prefers to defend whoever has the bread to pay him (usually real criminals). An idolizing, young law school graduate, Roger Baron (Robert Downey Jr, a couple years before his performance in Chaplin made him a major actor) volunteers to be his clerk, hoping to experience some of that '60s magic. He pushes Dodd to become better, until the older lawyer slowly comes to realize he has been cheating himself and his own ideals. Oh, and also there's some kind of loser case that Baron convinces him to take; something about a Korean-American kid wrongly convicted of murder that leads to the uncovering of all kinds of legal system corruption, as well as some suspense and some lawyerly heroics.
Director Joseph Ruben, started off in the '70s making culty teenploitation flicks (The Sister-in-Law, The Pom Pom Girls) before moving into more earnest, youthful dramas (Joyride, Our Winning Season), after a couple of '80s genre hits (Dreamscape, The Stepfather), he was ready for the big time. By ’89, on paper, True Believer must have felt like award bait. Woods was coming off his Oscar nomination, Downey had shown some chops in Less Than Zero, but the film settles for pulp (a murder mystery) instead of going all in as a character portrait. It misses the mark on both accounts, but lands with Woods’ performance, just strong enough to make it now very watchable.
For Woods the late '80s would be his high point as a theatrical leading man. Though he would score many fine supporting roles in the years after (Casino, The Virgin Suicides and Ghosts Of Mississippi, for which he earned his second Oscar nomination), his best work would be in the world of TV Movies, for which he is surely a first-ballot hall-of-famer, with a plethora of major performances for the small-screen including My Name Is Bill W., Citizen Cohn, Indictment: The McMartin Trial, and Dirty Pictures. It really is fair to say there has never been a major actor like James Woods. He is as intense as any actor ever, and he never worried about being appealing. With his pockmarked and gaunt features he was born to play bad guys, but somehow through the force of his talent was able to jump into the hero lane (the same way Bogart did even more successfully). And like Bogart, he usually comes off as both the most dangerous and the smartest guy in the room; a hard combination to perfect so effortlessly. We know now what a talent Downey has become, but in True Believer he is totally swallowed up by the tornado of energy that is Woods. Though his leading man window was short, and he only made a handful of films that stand the test of time, he left his mark, and True Believer is as good an introduction to his resume, performance-wise, as anything he did.