You'll laugh! You'll cry! Especially if you're watching something that's not a legal drama, like True Believer. Judge Norman Short proves that maybe things are all right back on the farm with this even-handed review.
And justice for all.
True Believer is a taut, well written urban thriller/courtroom drama made even better by the standout performance of James Woods, who plays Eddie Dodd, a burned out radical lawyer from the '60s brought back into the search for truth and justice by a young idealist. Eddie is a lawyer who can stare down a jury like Clint Eastwood and can give a closing statement like a fire and brimstone preacher; a man in perpetual motion. Woods gives a performance that is nuanced even while it seems obvious, giving subtle clues to his character even when acting as almost a force of nature in the story. The film is worth seeing for his performance alone, but the story is well paced and crafted as well. Columbia's DVD release of the film is welcome, but not their best work in the audio/visual and extras departments.
Facts of the Case
Roger Baron (Robert Downey Jr.) is a young lawyer just out of law school who will give anything to work for his man who inspired him, Eddie Dodd. His summations from the '60s "changed his life," and he is eager to get started. Unfortunately, he's never seen Dodd's picture, and when he walks into court he assumes the graying hippie with the ponytail is the defendant, and the clean-cut guy must be Dodd. Of course the hippie is really Dodd (James Woods), who gives a blistering summation that gets an obviously guilty drug dealer an acquittal. After the verdict, they return to Dodd's Greenwich Village office, where it becomes apparent that things aren't as Baron thought. Dodd has become a jaded cynic who unwraps large packages of cash from defending drug dealers while deluding himself he is working to protect civil liberties. It doesn't help the clean-cut youngster to see Dodd smoking pot like a chimney.
Things are about to change, as a Chinese lady comes in looking for Dodd to defend her son, who she claims is innocent of a murder charge for which he was convicted eight years ago, and also needs defending for a jailhouse killing in the present. Dodd would like to pass it up, but with Baron acting as his conscience decides to give it a look. The original murder conviction whets Dodd's appetite, and rejuvenates his passion for justice and stamping out corruption. The re-opening of the case brings the rats out of the woodwork, and Dodd has to fight against the DEA, a skinhead group, and crooked cops to get to the truth.
Without a few twists to keep things fresh, True Believer could have been a television detective story. Fortunately, there are those twists to keep up interest and keep the answers in doubt, and the kinetic performance of James Woods to fuel the fire. In an unintended twist of irony, it is wonderful to see James Woods play the burned out stoner and Robert Downey Jr. playing the straight-laced kid in the button-downed shirt. A bit of unintentional humor for today's audience.
The story follows familiar terrain as Dodd uncovers corruption, missing evidence, time discrepancies, and witness problems. But Woods gives the trail an intense spin that makes us care about the outcome. Clichés are handled and overcome by the quality of the performances, though Woods stands head and shoulders over the supporting cast.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Robert Downey Jr. is one of those outshined by Woods in the film. It seems even he, a fine actor in my experience, was perhaps intimidated by James Woods and his high voltage performance. Roger Baron does little besides provide a conscience for Dodd, and is basically the sidekick the rest of the time.
The story worked well for me right up until the end, when the inevitable courtroom showdown became murky in it's implementation. Though the end of the case was not in doubt, the scene ran out of steam before it could be finished properly. It would have only taken another minute or so to do it right. This is a small complaint in an otherwise tight script.
Unfortunately this seems to be an indifferent effort from Columbia where the DVD is concerned. Image quality is often soft, with a sometimes distracting amount of film grain. Colors are a bit faded as well. That said, the picture is very watchable. Film defects such as scratches and blemishes are kept to a minimum. It looks all right, it's just not up to what we've come to expect. Both anamorphic and pan and scan transfers are offered on this two sided disc. Audio is handled by a workmanlike Dolby surround track, with clear dialogue and little presence anywhere but the front soundstage. Low end is minimal, as is directional panning. It is certainly adequate for the material, but not very impressive. Extra content is light as well, with talent files and two trailers being the entire package. For some reason, neither trailer is for True Believer. That just strikes me as odd.
For an interesting story and a fine performance by James Woods, give this film a look. The disc is only marginally worthy of a purchase, and that for the quality of the film. It might make a better rental unless you already know you like the film.
The film is innocent, as the court appreciates the efforts of a lawyer pursuing the cause of justice. Columbia is released on its own recognizance, but is admonished that even catalog titles deserve a little more effort.
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