Plot: Eddie Dodd (James Woods) built a reputation as a civil rights defender, but his years battling a broken system took a toll on him and these days, he defends drug dealers, not activists. But his earlier work still inspires some young lawyers, such as fresh law school graduate Roger Baron (Robert Downey, Jr.), who wants to work under Dodd to learn from him first hand. Of course, Baron isn’t interested in all these drug dealer cases, so he starts to push Dodd toward a case that is more in line with his old days of law. A prisoner has been given a life sentence for his role in a gang initiation murder, but he has maintained his innocence and Baron is convinced he has been wrongly convicted. After being worn down, Dodd agrees to reopen the long dormant case, only to discover there is so much more to the situation than he or Baron could have ever expected.
Entertainment Value: This is a rock solid legal drama that boasts an impressive cast that includes James Woods’ ponytail, which helps balance out a passable, but not all that memorable narrative. The story is fine, but follows the usual legal drama formula for the most part and doesn’t throw in many curves, relying more on the characters and performances to shoulder the load here. That is just what happens too, as the cast is what carries the movie and the focus on characters was a wise choice, since the narrative leaves little impression. I appreciate that while the investigation is a central element here, True Believer takes a more active approach and doesn’t just walk us through the procedural elements involved. So we have a more kinetic legal drama here, rather than a dry, if still interesting courtroom style drama. There is still emphasis on procedure and even courtroom practices, but there are some light thriller vibes that keep tension and energy levels up. This is good news, as the movie does feel a little drawn out in a few places, though overall, the pace is reasonable. I still think the cast is the best part here however, though True Believer is easy to recommend to fans of legal dramas or crime dramas.
The real star of True Believer is James Woods’ ponytail, but the cast is rock solid across the board as well. Woods is good here as a hipster lawyer trying to reconcile his idealism with the real world dynamics, perhaps a little over the top at times, but still a strong effort, I think. I think Woods is a reliable performer, but I tend to prefer him in less than upstanding roles, so this one doesn’t feel right in his wheelhouse. The spark of his slimier side is present here and there, but once he is convinced to do the right thing, it becomes more of a righteous approach. And he does well with the part, ponytail or no ponytail, so he’s a capable lead once again. Robert Downey, Jr. has a more grounded style, but is still able to convey a good deal of passion, which plays off Woods’ effort well, especially toward the start of the movie. The two have good chemistry and the banter is effective, which is important in this case. I was also pleased to see Kurtwood Smith pop up here, in yet another small, but memorable role in his 80s run. The cast also includes Luis Guzman, Yuji Okumoto, Margaret Colin, and Charles Hallahan.
The Disc: Mill Creek has released True Believer on Blu-ray, in a retro, VHS style slipcover edition, no less. The transfer is fine, but it is clear the movie could use a new restoration and scan, to be sure. I found detail to be solid at times, though some softness creeps in and in general, this is an improvement over the DVD editions. The colors are natural, if a touch subdued and contrast is consistent, while grain can be heavy, though you don’t want to lose that film-like texture. So this looks good, even if it won’t knock your socks off and the price reflects that.