True Believer is never quite anything it sets out for (story-wise)–it’s not the story of a lost man finding his way, it’s not a legal drama, it’s not the story of a young lawyer spurning riches for morals. Instead, it’s a courtroom movie with corruption, chase scenes through metal shops, a great Brad Fiedel score and some wonderful New York location shooting. It’s a Hollywood movie, but one with an energetic James Woods running the show and a (just) smart enough script. Wesley Strick almost seems to know he’s using genre standards, but it doesn’t matter, because he’s using them really effectively. However, it’s kind of impossible (Strick’s premeditation) because he couldn’t have known it’d be Woods or Joseph Ruben directing or Fiedel’s score and all three are essential. The score’s a funny thing to be essential, but Fiedel gives Woods’s civil rights lawyer turned drug defender (the first ten minutes play like the unseen “Practice” pilot) a hero’s theme. It’s like Superman or something and it’s a great choice, because Woods does great things playing a hero here.
Woods is not the whole show, however, which is kind of odd, given his presence. Woods is so good, almost nothing else (except Ruben and Fiedel and Strick’s mainstream competence) matter. The movie’s not short–running almost an hour and fifty–and it’s beautifully paced. There’s no pacing mistakes here, if anything, it occasionally gets too short. The big “mistake” is Robert Downey Jr.’s character, who’s in the film to introduce the audience to Woods and get him on the path of righteousness again. Besides some later discoveries and some important observations, Downey has almost nothing to do. He and Woods play well off each other, but he’s a cog in the script. Even worse, he’s new to town so he’s got no texture… the movie never even explains where he, unpaid, lives (especially since Woods’s lawyer lives in his office).
Downey is in the movie because he needs to be there, much like Margaret Colin’s detective. She’s there because Woods–as a defense attorney–needs a detective; he’s got a sidekick, a detective and a cop buddy who always lets him in the evidence room. Strick’s not reinventing the wheel here, just setting it up for–with a solid production–a good spin. The supporting cast is all great–really great. Tom Bower’s got a five or six minute part and he practically got tears out of me. Same goes for Yuji Okumoto as the (of course) innocent client. Very few big scenes, but he makes the most of them–holding up against Woods, which is no small feat here. Kurtwood Smith’s a good adversary, since it’s Kurtwood Smith, and Charles Hallahan has a nice part… so does Graham Beckel, who has a tiny part with a lot of room for effect. Strick’s plotting is so good, these actors can come in for just a few minutes but have these incredibly successful scenes.
At one point, in the third act, it seems like True Believer might elevate to a higher Hollywood level. It doesn’t, after coming real close. But it wouldn’t have been particularly special, and as a Woods vehicle and a well-produced mainstream legal thriller, it does a fine job.
Directed by Joseph Ruben; written by Wesley Strick; director of photography, John Lindley; edited by George Bowers; music by Brad Fiedel; production designer, Lawrence Miller; produced by Lawrence Lasker and Walter F. Parkes; released by Columbia Pictures.
Starring James Woods (Eddie Dodd), Robert Downey Jr. (Roger Baron), Margaret Colin (Kitty Greer), Yuji Okumoto (Shu Kai Kim), Kurtwood Smith (Robert Reynard), Tom Bower (Cecil Skell), Miguel Fernandes (Art Esparza), Charles Hallahan (Vincent Dennehy), Sully Diaz (Maraquilla Esparza), Misan Kim (Mrs. Kim), John Snyder (Chuckie Loeder), Luis Guzmán (Ortega) and Graham Beckel (Vinny Sklaroff).