Nine years ago in 1979 a crime was committed in New York's Chinatown which saw one man shot to death in the street, and another, American-Korean man, Shu Kai Kim (Yuji Okumoto) arrested and convicted in spite of his protestations of innocence. Now he has hit another problem when in prison as a gang of white supremacists have decided to murder him to set an example, and the altercation in the chapel leaves him alive, but with blood on his hands for in self-defence he stabbed his assailant. This means any hope of parole is dwindling, so his mother goes for help to the one lawyer who would take that kind of no-hope case, Eddie Dodd (James Woods)...
Or at least that's the way he used to be, before he found himself crusading for a relaxation of the drugs laws and subsequently seeing to it that rich cocaine addicts get away scot free after a spot of persuasive haranguing from Dodd. Not the best way for a brilliant legal mind to be squandering his talents, but True Believer took the form of that old Hollywood favourite, the redemption yarn as Woods' character rediscovered that sixties radical spirit he possessed for years before the eighties turned him into what Wesley Strick's script evidently regarded as a sell-out (complete with ill-advised "rebellious" ponytail). Naturally, this sort of role was ideal for an actor like Woods, and he grabbed this opportunity with such aplomb you could not envisage anyone else starring.
Thus the film became one of those movies which are personal discoveries for a small but substantial number of viewers as they stumbled upon this with no expectations and found it to be surprisingly worthwhile and worth recommending whenever Woods came up in conversation. There was another star in the cast who by the twenty-first century was one of the biggest names in Hollywood, having seen his esteem rise as Woods' dropped, and he was Robert Downey Jr, in this instance playing the sidekick as in quite a few movies of this era where an established actor would be paired with a younger, up and coming performer in the hope the box office tills would be set a-ringing by fans of both.
And that some of that movie star magic would rub off on the younger actor, naturally, as their fanbase grew. For Downey, this was not one of his most auspicious roles not because he was bad in it - he's actually fine as the fresh-faced optimist - but because the film fell through the cracks at the point where he was sabotaging his career with his well-publicised drugs problems, making Dodd's pro-narcotics stance more than a little apt. But it was largely a miscarriage of justice True Believer concerned itself with, drawn from a real life case just as Woods was actually essaying a fictionalised version of a real life lawyer, Tony Serra, though you doubted any cases he worked on were quite as melodramatically contrived as the one Dodd is embroiled with for entertainment purposes.
Imagine a pothead Perry Mason and you had some concept of what we were dealing with as the legal eagle is won over to Downey's Roger Baron and his point of view that Dodd should be fighting for civil and human rights as much now, in the eighties, as he did back then in the sixties. It was pretty corny, but managed to be very diverting thanks to Woods and his more than adept manner, adding a touch of cocky abrasiveness to what could have been one step up from a TV movie effort in other, less ambitious hands. The director here was Joseph Ruben, an able craftsman who had up to this point been helming cult successes at best: his work here made him briefly higher profile in such slick endeavours as the Julia Roberts vehicle Sleeping with the Enemy, but if you've heard of him, it would likely be for this and The Stepfather, maybe Dreamscape too, his cult eighties trilogy. With Kurtwood Smith fresh off Robocop as the hissable D.A. who amusingly butts heads with Woods in the courtroom, this may have been farfetched but the acting helped considerably. Very synth-y music by Brad Fiedel.