True Believer

(1989, rated R) James Woods (Eddie Dodd), Robert Downey, Jr. (Roger Barron), Margaret Colin (Kitty Greer), Yuji Okumoto (Shiu Kai Kim), Kurtwood Smith (Robert Reynard), Tom Bower (Cecil Skell), Miguel Fernandez (Art Esparza), Charles Hallahan (Vincent Dennehy), Luis Guzman (Ortega). Music: Brad Fidel (“Busload of Faith” written/sung by Lou Reed). Screenplay: Wesley Strick. Director: Joseph Ruben. 108 minutes.

Tags: Mystery, Courtroom Drama, “Criminal Justice YRW”

Notable: Downey as a baby-faced 24 year old; spun-off short-lived TV series Eddie Dodd, starring Treat Williams.

Rating: ★★★★☆

Eddie Dodd was a crusading lawyer in his day; now, he’s a burn-out, defending drug dealers that he knows are guilty in order to make points about the unfairness of governmental and police procedural flaws… so he says. Roger Barron, fresh out of law school, was impressed with Eddie’s early cases, comes to San Francisco to work with him, not sure that he’s even meeting the firebrand of years past. The knifing of a prison inmate by another inmate calls into question whether or not young Shiu Kai Kim (the alleged killer) should have been in prison in the first place. After all these years of having lost his own belief in The System, Eddie now has a chance to defend an innocent man. The question becomes… can he?

Courtroom stories focusing on the defense usually have two major elements to them: The work outside of the courtroom that our defense attorneys perform in order to find evidence of their client’s innocence, and the work inside the courtroom where they ply their various maneuvering to make the jury believe their client’s innocence. One turns on the other, especially if one area of the work isn’t going as well as it should be. This film balances the two facets beautifully, including a few dumb mistakes in both venues along with those “a-ha” moments when all the evidence finally comes together in a way that allows our good-guy attorneys to present the facts that had been muddied or overlooked in the original theory of the crime.

James Woods is an actor whose reputation off-camera is riddled with outrageous political tweets (on par with a certain infamous twit-ter) and both verbal and physical violence, capped with an attitude of invulnerability. On camera, he has an ability to bring his voice, presence, and characterization in line with the needs of the film and is, in those moments, a shining example of superior craftsmanship. As Eddie Dodd, he brings to life a character who is initially repulsive yet capable of being redeemed to our satisfaction.

The big surprise for our Millennial friends is seeing Robert Downey Jr. long before his modern roles of Tony “Iron Man” Stark and Sherlock Holmes. I love showing the DVD case to those who are great fans of those performances and telling them who the fresh-faced “boy” is on the cover. Interestingly, there are bits of foreshadowing in the presentation of Roger Barron that whisper what we see in both roles I’ve just mentioned. This includes a touch of smart-assed comic timing by the Roger Barron character that helps carry the Eddie Dodd character past some of the moments of intensity that need it.

Fans of Perry Mason and A Few Good Men will find much to praise here. The character’s redemption is believable, the story flows well, and those who are fans of courtroom shows will appreciate some of the legal maneuvering that District Attorney Robert Reynard (played with ice and aplomb by Kurtwood Smith) tosses in Eddie’s way. It’s not a spoiler to say that the tables to get turned, and at the point it is cold revenge, in the guise of justice, that is served… and damn right too.

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