Best Courtroom Movies – True Believer
Long before he was Iron Man, Robert Downey, Jr. played a young lawyer in the movie “True Believer” in support of James Woods, whose character was based on Tony Serra, a noted criminal defense attorney in California during the latter half of the 20th Century. In 1983, Serra won an acquittal for Chol Soo Lee, a Korean-American immigrant, who had been convicted of murder in 1973 and sentenced to life imprisonment in San Francisco. The film inspired a spin-off television series, Eddie Dodd, starring Treat Williams in the title role.
In 1970, Serra successfully defended Black Panther leader Huey Newton in a murder trial. He had many other high-profile criminal clients including organized crime boss, Raymond Chow, and members of the Symbionese Liberation Army, the terrorist group that kidnapped Patricia Hearst. Serra is not like most lawyers or people for that matter as he has taken a vow of poverty and is known for living a frugal lifestyle. Serra does not have a cell phone, bank account, or credit card, and chooses to drive only a used car, a “beater” as some would call it.
Today, Serra is 87 years old. Serra has stated
“I took an informal vow of poverty. I vowed that I would never take profit from the practice of law, that I would not buy anything new, that I would recycle everything, that I would own no properties – no stocks or bonds, no images of prosperity. I still drive an old junk of a car. I still barely make the rent each month; I have accumulated nothing by way of savings, and I live from hand to mouth.”
Woods plays a character who habitually smokes pot while practicing law. He is encouraged by Downey’s character, a young law clerk fresh out of law school, to take the case of Lee who has not only been convicted of a gang-related murder but has also killed a fellow inmate in self-defense while in prison. Dodd’s better days as a legal activist are behind him as he confines his practice to defending drug dealers who pay him in cash.
- James Woods as Eddie Dodd
- Robert Downey Jr. as Roger Baron
- Yuji Okumoto as Shu Kai Kim
- Margaret Colin as Kitty Greer
- Kurtwood Smith as Robert Reynard
- Tom Bower as Cecil Skell
- Charles Hallahan as Vincent Dennehy
- Miguel Fernandes as Art Esparza
- Sully Diaz as Maraquilla Esparza
- Luis Guzman as Ortega
- Joel Polis as Dean Rabin
- Kurt Fuller as George Ballistics
- Graham Beckel as Sklaroff
- John Snyder as Chuckie Loeder
Eddie Dodd (Woods) sees who he once was in the idealistic Roger Baron (Downey) and attempts to return to the time when he fought for the rights of the less fortunate. In the process, both Eddie Dodd and Roger Baron uncover a surprising set of circumstances surrounding the murder.
Noted Time Magazine film critic Richard Schickel wrote
Woods’ angry energy is clarifying as well as terrifying, and when he unleashes it (usually without warning), the effect is to focus our attention where it belongs, not on a suspense story but on the mysteries of human behavior.
The late film reviewer, Roger Ebert, noted the following about James Woods:
“When I see Woods on the screen in the first shot of a movie, I sort of smile to myself because I know that something strange and offbeat and maybe even inspired is about to happen.”
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