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‘True Believer’ (R)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
February 17, 1989

When Eddie Dodd, the renegade defense attorney in Joseph Ruben's "True Believer," confronts a jury, he pontificates like a holy roller strutting the one true Gospel. Dodd, played by James Woods, is forever up on the balls of his feet, bouncing with fervent energy, fixing the jurors in his Svengali gaze. With his graying ponytail swinging between his shoulder blades, Dodd is an excessive, flamboyant showman -- the Mick Jagger of jurisprudence.

Dodd is that rarest of all creatures, a lawyer with principles, or at least at one time he was. Dodd hasn't exactly sold out, he's simply left the game. The spirit of '60s radicalism that once motivated his defense of Indian groups, civil rights workers and antiwar protesters lies dormant in him. Now his practice is built primarily on getting cocaine and angel dust peddlers off the hook. Using the law against itself, he works the loopholes in the system like a master, slipping through the tiniest of openings, his amazed, grateful clients piling out behind him. As one dealer comments after his day in court, "Eddie Dodd. Everybody should own one."

For his efforts, Dodd gets paid off in big bundles of cash, and you assume that he's rolling in dough. But he lives like a pauper, alone, in a cell-like room next to his office. Wesley Strick's script doesn't fill in what might have caused the attorney to withdraw from the fight and spend his night drifting on clouds of reefer smoke. But we understand enough to see that, spiritually, Dodd is drifting. His claim that "the last struggle for constitutional rights is being waged over drugs" is only the flimsiest of rationalizations. Nobody's fooled, least of all himself. He's a soul in crisis, and as a result, his passionate summations have deteriorated into empty shows of virtuosity, gassy rheotoric -- lawyer talk.

The movie opens with a violent, hallucinatory flourish. In New York's Chinatown, a man with a dark fringe of beard shoulders his way hurriedly through the crowded street, pulls a revolver and guns down the young Chinese walking in front of him.

Acting on a tip from a Chinese street gang, the police haul in a young Korean man, Shu Kai Kim (Yuji Okumoto), who, they claim, committed the hit to get into the gang. And once the murder weapon is found in his dresser with his fingerprints all over it, the prosecution has little trouble making its case.

Eight years later, when Kim kills a white supremacist in a prison showdown, Dodd takes his case -- largely at the urging of his ardent young clerk, Roger (Robert Downey Jr.), who wants to see the old Eddie -- the one who believed in something -- at work again. Desperate to find an angle, Dodd starts poking around the facts in the original conviction and decides to drag the case back into court. Though clearly there was enough evidence against Kim for a conviction, Eddie is certain that he's innocent. And nothing, not the intimidation tactics of the city DA (Kurtwood Smith), or a street assault by a paid attacker, will scare him off. This is his chance for redemption and he's not going to blow it.

"True Believer" is a thriller about moral rejuvenation, and there's not much wrong with it that another actor in the lead wouldn't cure. The movie gives Woods his juiciest role since "Salvador," and the actor throws his heart and soul into the character -- his entire being. But when hasn't Woods thrown his entire self into a part? Woods must be the most "on" actor in movie history, and one of the least convincing. As Eddie, Woods never leaves anything in reserve. Early in the film, when Dodd is merely supposed to be emoting for the jury, Woods is effective enough, but as the emotions intensify he begins to churn it up for the camera as well. There's something panicky about Woods' acting -- he acts scared, like a comic bombing in front of a hostile crowd. There's intensity in his performance, but of the patented sort, and it's not very involving. It's merely intense.

Part of the problem is that Ruben relies too heavily on Woods' whirring turbines to power his scenes. The fault here lies more in the material than in Ruben's handling of it. There's an attraction to the dilemma of a '60s provocateur stranded in the moral gray zone of the '80s, but the themes aren't well served by the thriller plot. Ruben sustains the tension, and the movie never dawdles; his work is skillful and atmospheric -- it's the work of a gifted pro. But in "Dreamscape" and "The Stepfather," Ruben showed that he was more than a proficient craftsman, that there was a vital sensibility at work behind the camera. And you can't help wishing that he had shown up with something more distinctive.

Basically, "True Believer" is a high-grade television story made by a director with big-screen talent. Apart from Woods, the cast is strong, particularly Downey, who's droll and likably callow in his button-down regalia, and Margaret Colin, who gets off a few prickly zingers as a private investigator. Both actors are underutilized, though. You want more of them -- and more of Ruben.

"True Believer" contains some violence, references to drug use, and strong language.

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