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‘True Believer’ (R)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
February 17, 1989

James Woods, a bushy-tailed attorney, goes the distance with the powers that be and makes "True Believer" a legal blast.

Director Joseph ("The Stepfather") Ruben and screenwriter Wesley Strick present just enough comic relief and courtroom twists to make the case an entertaining and gripping one. But it's Woods, uncovering the almost-requisite conspiracy (something to do with a white racist network) and undergoing the requisite spiritual transformation, who gives "Believer" that vital punch.

Hollywood attorneys must always go the distance -- you knew that. Otherwise there'd be no "Jagged Edge" or "The Verdict," no "Physical Evidence" and certainly no "True Believer." Which is why ex-hippie briefcase-toter Woods refuses to cut a deal with sleazy Manhattan D.A. Kurtwood Smith over jailbird Yuji Okumoto, who's accused of murdering an inmate. The attorney believes his client was framed for his original murder conviction eight years earlier.

A former good-guy advocate in the '60s, Woods has misfiled his sense of commitment somewhere in the Reagan era; nowadays he represents pimps and drug-runners. But then, new associate Robert Downey Jr., brimming with idealistic pep, begs him to take Okumoto's case, and the Korean convict's sad-eyed mother says, "Save my son."

What's a movie actor to do?

What Woods does, and does best: Flood the formula with that no-nonsense, misfit agitation (as in "Salvador," "Against All Odds," "Bestseller" and "Cop") -- which helps flesh out some of screenwriter Strick's more career-damaging lines (such as "For a while we had this dream -- we were innocent," or "Everybody's guilty. Everybody."). And he does it all sporting an obviously fake ponytail (picture Davy Crockett as a yuppie). You gotta love him.

For every trite line and connect-the-dots scene, however, Strick inserts a memorable one. When a white supremacist tells Downey the man he's looking for is doomed to a violent death on the apocalyptic "Day of the Rope," the novice lawyer gingerly asks: "Prior to the Great Day of the Rope, where can he be found?"

Well, he gets found. And in the end, the lawyer gets his courage and his heart, and if Dorothy were his legal assistant, why, she'd get back safely to Kansas too. But you knew that. What counts in "Believer" is not what happens but how. This is as good a how as any.

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