James Woods was not a newcomer in “The Onion Field.” He’d done a lot of impressive work on Broadway and been in two or three earlier films. But as one of the cop killers in Joseph Wambaugh’s account of an actual case, Woods had a lean, clenched, demonic intensity that commandeered the screen.
He has been dominating the screen ever since, whether or not he has had the leading role. His tough-talking deprogrammer is the performance I remember from “Split Image,” about one of the fringe sects. That part was a small breakthrough for Woods: He was a good guy, although an unpleasant one. But it was a hint, at least, that he was not sentenced to play only lethal loonies the rest of his career.
Woods starred as Joshua in “Joshua Then and Now,” playing a badly flawed but finally sympathetic protagonist clawing his way up the slopes of society and literature. His intensity dominated the Ted Kotcheff film, although it was really an ensemble piece, derived from the fine Mordecai Richler novel and with strong supporting work from Alan Arkin and others.
“True Believer” Woods regards as his first starring vehicle in the sense that it sits squarely on his shoulders to carry or drop. It is, that is, a star vehicle tailored to his measurements.
The ingredients are to say the least familiar. The burnt-out and cynical lawyer could almost be Paul Newman in “The Verdict.” Woods chases drug cases instead of funerals, but the rebirth of a passionate thirst for justice is the same, and the results carry the same kind of satisfaction.
But the film rises above its familiar ingredients on the thrust of Woods’ portrayal. Wearing a nappy gray ponytail wig as a surviving symbol from the ‘60s of the lawyer’s radical idealism, snarling, posturing, enjoying no one and nothing except his unworthy triumphs over a justice system that appears as cynical as he is, Woods is a wonder to watch.
Yet the performance is nothing so obvious as a vaudeville turn, all whiz-bang charisma. Even in the early going, confounding Robert Downey Jr. as the young idealist who thinks he is arriving to work for a later Clarence Darrow, Woods gives off glinting hints of the more complicated man within.
The film, directed by Joseph Ruben from a script by Wesley Strick, does not provide a lot of back-story on the lawyer’s slippage from protest to a kind of despondent cynicism. But the audience feels the emptiness of the life, a barren solitariness in which the fat cash payments from the acquitted drug dealers only deepen his self-loathing despair. There isn’t even an understanding mistress who shortens the nights and urges the lawyer to better things. (Something of this was actually filmed but wisely eliminated.)
But the return of the passion for justice is not an unprepared surprise and the lawyer’s subsequent ricocheting between hope and a new level of despair when defeat seems certain is wonderful to watch.
“True Believer” is indubitably an entertainment, not a social document, with an invigorating chase through a plumbing supply factory, a hitherto neglected film venue. But one of the several lures of the movies as an art form is performance pure and simple--the chance to watch charismatic actors being their memorable best. It is the lure and the strength of “True Believer.”
As Woods made overwhelmingly clear in “Salvador,” he is one of a handful of present film actors who can play supremely well the ordinary modern man--an untidy collusion of evident vices and hidden virtues and strengths--caught in extraordinary situations.
Having made a name playing villains, Woods has now proved he can play heroes (however belated and reluctant the heroics), and that on the strength of his remarkable kinetic energy he can carry a film.
“True Believer” is not apt to leave much of a mark on film history. But in its own way it is a milestone in the emergence of an actor.