Saturday, November 27, 2010

"You're a dangerous man, Mr. Dodd": Remembering True Believer

Eddie Dodd is having trouble looking in the mirror these days. Once a dedicated activist and civil-rights attorney who believed in change and progression through the sixties and seventies, Dodd has spent the best part of the eighties defending drug-dealers and pushers in exchange for whatever cash he can get, and he only sees a shadow of what he used to be each time he catches his reflection. With only a ponytail he refuses to cut connecting him to his youth, Dodd finds a shot at redemption when an idealistic young law student interns at his office and brings him a case that will either change or end his life.

A searing work from 1989 fuelled by a magnificent performance by James Woods, True Believer is one of the great under-the-radar American films from the last few decades. Directed with flair and intelligence by Joseph Ruben from an absolutely killer script from Wesley Strick, True Believer is a stirring film that has haunted me since I first saw it as a teen more than twenty years ago.

True Believer had its origins in a series of articles Pulitzer-Prize nominated journalist K.W. Lee had written on a controversial 1973 San Francisco Chinatown gangland killing. Lee’s writing and the notoriety surrounding the event eventually led to the release of a prisoner on San Quintin’s Death Row, and it inspired the young screenwriter Strick to fashion a passionate and inspired fictionalized screenplay set in nineteen-eighties New York.

New York born and Berkely graduate Wesley Strick was just past his 36th birthday when True Believer briefly played theaters in February of 1989. It was the first major script that the former Rock-Journalist had seen brought to the screen and it would land him an Edgar Award nomination. It also remains the crowning achievement of his career, as none of his subsequent work (as a screen-writer and script-doctor) has come close to matching its intelligence, style and depth.
While True Believer’s storyline had been inspired by that Chinatown slaying from the early seventies, Strick’s inspiration for the burned-out and disillusioned Eddie Dodd was Tony Serra, the famed lawyer who had successfully gotten the acquittal for wrongly accused Chol Soo Lee in the case. Strick’s highly fictionalized version of Serra was a man who had lost his way through the eighties, a dreamer who had been eaten up by a system that simply just didn’t give a damn the way that he had. An actor of limitless talent had to be brought on board to play Eddie Dodd for True Believer, otherwise the film wouldn’t have worked. Lucky for Strick and director Ruben, that very special actor was available in 1988 when the film was shot mostly on location in New York City.

James Woods had been delivering knock-out work since the mid seventies on stage and screen. His career seemed close to exploding in 1986 due to his unbelievably intense Oscar-nominated performance in Oliver Stone’s Salvador, but the films that followed that masterful work had been mostly disappointing. The film that proceeded True Believer, 1988’s The Boost, had gotten Woods back on the right track though and it led the way to, what I think, is his career best performance as Eddie Dodd.

Joining Woods for True Believer in the pivotal role as legal clerk Roger Baron was Robert Downey Jr., one of the most gifted actors that had came out of the eighties. Downey, like Woods, was also suffering a bit of a dry-creative run when he shot True Believer in 1988, but he delivers a typically hypnotic and engaging performance as Baron and elevates what could have been a stock-character in lesser hands.

As far as the film's director went, Joseph Ruben probably seemed an unlikely choice to bring Strick's script for True Believer to life but he turned out to be an inspired choice as well. The New York born filmmaker had been working, mostly in exploitation films, since the seventies and had delivered a future cult-classic in 1987 with The Stepfather. True Believer is Rubin’s best work as a director though, and he manages to make it work as both first-class entertainment, as well as an incredibly provocative indictment of a generation that had sold out its beliefs and values for a luxury swimming pool in their backyard. Everything from his framing to his ability to hold a shot when it needed to be held in True Believer marked Rubin as major-talent in the making. It’s a shame he hasn't been given a script of such quality since.

The late eighties were a tricky time in American cinema. Lightweight crowd pleasing films like Rain Man and Driving Miss Daisy were crowding theaters and picking up awards, but it was a slew of cynical and thought-provoking works like True Believer, Running on Empty and Tequila Sunrise that were really telling the story of the day, each focusing in their own specific way on the failings of the eighties as an answer to the strives made in the sixties and seventies (culturally, politically and cinematically).

I first saw True Believer when I was a junior in High School and it had a pretty profound effect on me and I don’t think I have let a year slip by without giving it another look. Certainly one thing that I found so inspiring about the film was Wood’s haunting performance, Roger Ebert spent nearly the entirety of his original three-star review of the film praising it. Technically the film is quite dazzling as well if not at all showy (watch the still breathtaking and wonderfully edited sequence where Dodd and Baron recreate the murder they are investigating), but there was something in the film’s spirit that really moved me more than anything else. It was something about being a teen in the eighties suffering through Reagan, AIDS, The Religious-Right and conformity all the while with the knowledge that the liberal attitudes of the late sixties and seventies were so close and yet so far away. True Believer is one of those pivotal films from the eighties that is working against the decade…it’s not flashy, it doesn’t owe anything to MTV, and it has a real individualistic spirit that goes against the complacent nature of so many films of the time. Brad Fiedel’s score and James Woods' haircut are about the only things that place True Believer as a 'typical eighties film'. It’s a raging, if subtle, work that is a simultaneous throwback and flash-forward.

Not surprisingly True Believer failed when it hit theaters that cold winter of ’89. While it captivated a number of critics who were exhausted with the increasingly sappy and condescending turn American film had made in the mid-eighties audiences didn’t turn out for True Believer upon its release, and it’s never really gotten the fan-base it deserves. Woods astonishing performance alone should have guaranteed a cult around this film but it’s just never happened.

True Believer has always, thankfully, been a fairly easy film to see thanks to home video (and it even inspired a short-lived series called Eddie Dodd starring Treat Williams) and it is currently available on a bare-bones widescreen DVD from Columbia.

Joseph Ruben’s daring and expertly realized film remains one of my favorites from the eighties, and I hope some more folks might seek it out for the first time or give it another look. Re-watching the film recently I was struck with a certain sadness that I, like Eddie Dodd, didn’t fulfill a lot of my early promise, but as the end credits rolled and Lou Reed’s stunning “Busload of Faith” kicked in I was at least happy that I haven’t sold out my core beliefs and attitudes as I am nearing my fortieth year on the planet. True Believer, like Reed's song that was written for it, is just as relevant today as it was more than two decades ago...a reminder that everything, and nothing, has changed.


Wesley Strick said...

Hi, Jeremy. I just stumbled on your True Believer blog post quite by accident and was moved and gratified to read of the film's impact on you. Two things -- I had actually just turned 35, not 36, a few days before the film opened -- and closed! Now that we've got that out of the way, I'm curious to know whether you ever saw the second film Joe Ruben and I did together, Return To Paradise? It's also a powerful film, in my view -- one of the titles on my resume that people have tended to talk to me about, over the years ... Well, cheers. And thanks for your very kind words about my script!

Jeremy Richey said...

Wow, what an honor Mr. Strick! Thank you so much for reading and commenting! Yes, I have seen RETURN TO PARADISE and I find it to be an incredibly engrossing and powerful work as well. Thanks again!!!