True Believer (1989) Blu-ray Review: Blisteringly Performed Courtroom Drama

True Believer has been released on Blu-ray in one of Mill Creek’s Retro VHS Look packages. While it’s the same dimensions as a Blu-ray case, the slip-case over the disc has an old VHS cover on it, complete with a fake genre sticker attached. True Believer‘s says “Drama” and harkens from an era where drama was one of the dominant genres for motion pictures, back when it was assumed that an actual adult might, under some circumstance, accidentally wander into a movie theater and want to watch something that might arrest their intelligence.

And True Believer is one of those most tried-and-true, hoary of movie conventions: the courtroom drama. Courtrooms already have an inherent drama to them – a crime is assumed to have been committed, or else why would anyone be in court? There’s direct conflict – two lawyers against each other, witnesses and experts used as weapons. Surprise witnesses that would never actually be allowed in a real court trial but in the court of dramatic opinion are completely necessary, and even expected.

What separates one from another is the uniqueness of the crime in question, and the personalities of the lawyers. Since the accused, innocent or guilty, aren’t generally that interesting sitting by the sidelines and being talked about, lawyers are the heroes and villains in this sort of story. And that is where True Believer makes a mark.

After a prelude involving a jailhouse fight, where a Nazi is killed by a Korean inmate in self-defense, we meet green attorney Roger Baron (Robert Downey Jr.) hustling to court to finally meet his idol, whom he’d contracted to work with by mail. That hero is Eddie Dodd, so scruffy and disreputable looking Roger thinks he’s the client, not the lawyer.

Dodd is an old-school idealist – defending Black Panthers, wounded Viet Nam Vets, Labor Unions and other various Left Wing causes – or at least that’s how Roger had heard about him in law school. In real life, Dodd has found there’s a lot more solvency in being the guy who can get any drug dealer in town off with lofty speeches about constitutional rights and in depicting the powers that be as an Orwellian, fascistic surveillance state using the flimsy excuse of the drug war to encroach on every aspect of personal life. However much idealistic rhetoric he throws around, though, Dodd understands that his clientele are all guilty, and mostly scum.

“Everybody’s guilty,” he tells Roger, when he tries to remind him of the ideals he once held onto. And when a genuine case of innocence comes knocking, Dodd doesn’t want to hear about it. Shu Hai Kim has been in jail for eight years when he killed an Aryan nation brother in self-defense. But his mother doesn’t want a lawyer for this new charge: she says he wasn’t guilty of the crime that landed him in prison in the first place, and wants Dodd to get him out.

Dodd balks at first, but relents and meets Shu Hai. And decides, almost on a whim, that he isn’t guilty, and puts the full force of his legal acumen and personality to proving it. Which proves nearly deadly when he’s attacked by an Aryan brother outside his office, called a race traitor while being beaten down, and a Jew. “Only half,” Dodd says, in his defense.

James Woods plays Eddie Dodd, and it’s one of that most charismatic actor’s most off-kilter performances. He can shift from smarmy smart-ass to impassioned jurist in a heart-beat, and it is never unbelievable: the smarm is clearly a defense against a world that has no place for idealism. His major adversary is Robert Reynard (played by Kurtwood Smith, whom anyone familiar with his pre-That 70s Show career knows only plays bad guys), a confident DA whom the world believes is cleaning up the streets from ominous drug-dealers.

What follows in their conflict is an engaging story about race, class, and the various forces of law and lawlessness that go head to head in making a modern pluralistic society. It’s the sort of thing that, back when video stores were something people visited, you might see on the shelf and, having exhausted the other movies you’d seen half a dozen times, pick up and half something more to talk about the next evening.

The modern entertainment landscape is a million miles away from where a movie like this is made. It’s hard to consider where something like this would fit in, today, now. It’s not the kind of story that would be made into a movie, but would fit into TV. Interestingly, there was a short-lived TV show based on Dodd, with Treat Williams in the lead role. Treat’s fine, but he’s no James Woods.

And this kind of mystery is readily handled on modern television. So, is anything lost that movies like this aren’t made anymore?

I think so, because no TV show would be shot, or constructed like this story. Nearly 110 minutes, barely more than two episodes of a TV series, a story of this strength would probably be consigned to a single episode. Aspects of the plot would be dropped, and the story itself would (in a modern prestige TV show) be a sideline to how that plot affected the main characters in their overarching arc. Sometimes I think scene-craft and character complexity are sacrificed for quantity and superficial ‘nuance’ that doesn’t add up… and most modern TV is paced painfully slowly, while True Believer flies along its 110 minutes – not quite breakneck, but a brisk film despite very little of what would be called “action” in a modern context. There’s one foot chase involving Dodd, who is quite obviously ill-suited to it. A scene near the climax where Dodd has a gun to his head, he doesn’t engage in any heroics – he’s terrified, and his bravest act is walking away with the gun still pointed at him.

Perhaps not a lost classic of late 80s cinema, True Believer is still a solid drama, bolstered by one of James Woods’ electrifying performances. Robert Downey Jr. is decent in a rather underwritten role, but the dynamics between Kurtwood Smith’s arrogant self-assurance and Woods’ vulnerable bravado steal the show entirely, particularly in the climactic courtroom conflict where they find themselves not just professional rivals, but champions of completely incompatible ideals.

True Believer has been released on Blu-ray by Mill Creek Entertainment. Besides English subtitles and a snazzy fake-VHS case, there are no extras on the disc.

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Kent Conrad

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