True Believer (1989) review- A compelling legal thriller if you can get past James Woods’ awful ponytail

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my lifetime of consuming media it’s that people never tire of legal dramas.

Whether it’s watching old re-runs of Law & Order or listening to the latest true crime podcast, the public’s appetite for seeking out some form of justice in a cruel and uncaring world is seemingly bottomless.

Even though it was released in theatres thirty years ago, Joseph Ruben’s True Believer still scratches that itch through presenting a compelling mystery and a trio of rock-solid performances that give its courtroom proceedings even more dramatic weight.

James Woods stars as brilliant lawyer Eddie Dodd, who’s become so disillusioned with the legal system over the years that he’s gone from defending civil rights activists in the 60s to bailing out scummy drug dealers in the 80s.

[insert lame boomer joke about how those two are the same thing]

However, Dodd starts to regain some of his lost mojo after he reluctantly takes on the case of Shu Kai Kim, a man who is currently in jail for a gangland murder that he (according to his family) didn’t commit.

True Believer is by no means a ground breaking story, since it doesn’t radically deviate from the legal drama tropes that were old hat even when the film came out back in 1989.

Even if you’ve haven’t seen a second of this movie, rest assured that legal loopholes will be exploited, surprise witnesses will be conjured out of thin air and objections will be overruled in increasingly dramatic fashion.

However, Cape Fear scribe Wesley Strick makes those clichés a lot more digestible thanks to his tight script, which does a great job of gradually revealing clues and plot information without feeling forced or contrived.

It also helps that Woods and his plucky legal clerk (played by a pre-arc reactor Robert Downey Jr.) have great chemistry and are talented enough to make this overly complicated jargon sound compelling.

You also can’t ask for a better villain than Kurtwood Smith, especially since he plays a smarmy, elitist district attorney who is diametrically opposed to Woods’ champion of the downtrodden in every conceivable fashion.

The only weak link in the cast is Yuji Okumoto as Shu Kai Kim, who isn’t given nearly enough screen time to provide any insight into what it’s like being falsely accused of murder.

Instead, he becomes more of a plot device than an actual character, which is very disappointing since so much of the movie’s tension is built up around his well-being.

And since we’re talking about negatives, I don’t know who thought it was a good idea to saddle Woods with wearing this terrible wig that makes him look like your frumpy, middle-aged aunt.

JamesWoodsPonytail(TrueBeliever)

I know the ponytail is supposed to serve as a tribute to iconic civil rights attorney Tony Serra, who inspired Woods’ character, but that rug just kept taking me out of the story, especially when it is “complimented” by a big purple scrunchie.

Luckily, Woods was able to win me back with his very heartfelt performance, which straddles the line between the sleazy, underhandedness of Saul Goodman and the moral righteousness of Atticus Finch.

It’s also hilarious when you consider that Eddie Dodd’s lefty politics are completely at odds with Woods’ actual world view. In fact, I don’t think it’s a stretch to imagine that the actor would probably blast someone like Dodd as a “cuck” on his Twitter.

james-woods-twitter-ban

All that aside, if you aren’t sick to death of true crime content by this point then you should definitely give True Believer a watch.

It won’t set your world on fire, and you may even roll your eyes at the use of some well-worn tropes, but its potent mix of efficient storytelling and magnetic performances is perfect for the aspiring legal crusader in all of us.

That being said, Woods’ wig is still super gross, so I have to deduct points from this movie’s final score because of that alone.

Sorry. I don’t make the rules.

Verdict:

8/10

Corner store companion:

Fritos Hoops (because it’s an acquired taste, but very satisfying once you get to the bottom of it)

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Fun facts:

-Release date: Feb. 17, 1989

-Box officer gross: $8.7 million

-The plot of True Believer is loosely based on the real-life case of Chol Soo Lee, a Korean American who was wrongly convicted of a gangland killing in 1973 San Francisco. Not only did Chol Soo inspire the film’s character played by Yuji Okumoto, but his real-life attorney Tony Serra (mentioned above) also served as the main inspiration for James Woods’ eccentric lead performance.

-In a season five episode of The Simpsons titled “Homer and Apu” guest star James Woods, playing himself, namedrops True Believer during his job interview to become the temporary manager of the Kwick-E-Mart.

– This film was popular enough to inspire a short-lived television spin-off in 1991 called Eddie Dodd, which starred Treat Williams in the title role. The show only lasted six episodes before it was cancelled by ABC.

True Believer was nominated for an Edgar Allan Poe Award in the “Best Motion Picture” category back in 1990 (based on the strength of Wesley Strick’s screenplay). It eventually lost out to Daniel Waters’ work on the dark teen comedy Heathers.

-Musical highlight: “All Along the Watchtower” by Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix (the song marks a major turning point in the story when Dodd decides to stop being cynical and return to his roots are a moral crusader).

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