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For, Friday, Aug. 23, 2019

EDITOR’S NOTE: A rather forgotten film of the late 1980s is this thriller, with Robert Downey Jr. playing a role that was emblematic of his early career, playing a young, often idealistic newcomer that learns the hard way from a seasoned, often hardened, veteran (in this case, James Woods). This one’s pretty good and deserves its Blu-ray revival from the Mill Creek disc label. My review was published in the Deseret News on Feb. 17, 1989.

After his ill-fated “Cop” and “The Boost,” James Woods has finally come up with a winner in “True Believer,” a murder mystery that is as involving as his eccentric characterization.

Woods plays a former ’60s protest attorney now practicing in Manhattan, and spending most of his time getting sleazy drug dealers off. Along comes idealistic young law-school graduate Robert Downey Jr., who wants to work with the civil liberties champion he expects to find in Woods.

Naturally, Downey is rather disappointed to see pot-smoking, burned-out Woods has been bought off. But when an intriguing murder case comes into the office, Downey sees it as a way to get Woods back on track.


James Woods, left, Robert Downey Jr., 'True Believer' (1989)

The case is a Korean-American who has been in prison for eight years on a murder rap. He claims innocence still, of course, but now he’s charged with killing a fellow inmate as well. For that crime he claims self-defense.

Woods at first refuses the case, but then sees it as a way to take on the establishment one more time, by clearing his client not of the second murder charge, but of the first.

His journey into Chinatown and gang warfare and ultimately back into the powers-that-be in Manhattan makes for a complex, believable murder-corruption mystery that is most intriguing as it unravels, and it can be solved by the audience, though not too easily.

One of the problems with murder mysteries today is that they are either far too easy to figure out, following as they do the step-by-step movie-cliché path (as with “Physical Evidence”), or they are impossible to figure out, with the killer being revealed in the end as a red herring (as with “Suspect”).


But “True Believer” balances the mystery with offbeat characterizations essential to this genre, while providing plenty of suspense and laughter along the way.

James Woods is terrific, as usual, as the ponytailed, hip lawyer, and he carries the film when it tends to sag. The minor characters, particularly among those in the police department, D.A.’s office and the underworld, are quite good, but others, primarily Margaret Colin as a private eye, get short shrift. Robert Downey Jr., in a role that seems patterned after the Emilio Estevez part in “Stakeout,” is purposely low-key but it tends to work against him since everyone else is so flamboyant.

For the most part, however, this is one of the better mystery-suspensers to come along in some time.

“True Believer” is rated R for violence, profanity and considerable drug use (marijuana smoking), along with a fleeting shot of a nude photo.