I thought they'd never be able to squeeze another laugh out of somebody smoking grass again, not after the last few Cheech and Chong movies, but here it is all over again. There really isn't that much dope smoked, and that only at the beginning, and it is amusing. The scene is used to establish the fact that James Woods' character, Eddie Dodd, is a leftover radical from the 1960s. In case you didn't get it from his smoking grass, a habit he kicks during the trial (a throwback not to the 1960s but to "Reefer Madness"), he also has a pony tail.
Well, the poor guy has gone downhill since his early activist days. He still spouts the rhetoric but has stooped to defending coke dealers and making a good deal of money from his cases, using the money, he claims, to handle his marijuana cases pro bono. A newly minted lawyer from Michigan (Downey) joins him and, though disillusioned, pals up and helps handle the case of Ku Shai Kim, a Korean falsely convicted of homicide 8 years ago, now a resident of what appears to be Sing Sing. The location shooting was done in Oakland, apparently, but it all looks rather New Yorkish except for Greenwich Village, which I once knew quite well.
The plot could have been recycled from a noir screenplay that had been resting in somebody's drawer for forty or fifty years, though it is played more for laughs than despair. The innocent Korean lad turns out to have been nailed through the machinations of a politically motivated and corrupt police force and DA's office. There are a couple of beatings. A murder or two. A flashback that reveals the true nature of the crime. The prisoner is freed -- a more recent killing, probably in self defense, is entirely skipped over -- and joins his happy family and goes home to a meal of bulkogi or something. Woods, his faith in the justice system, in human nature, and in himself restored, claps his new law partner on the back and begins spouting 1960s slogans again as they stroll into the sunset.
Woods is up to the role, as usual, wisecracking has way through the most demanding travails. (While being pounded to a pulp and being called, "A ****** Jew," he grimaces through his pain and snaps, "Only half." There is one scene, towards the end, when someone's brains are blown out in front of him and he looks shocked and convincingly frightened, although the moment doesn't last long. Abject cowardice is not Woods' strong suit as an actor. He can't seem to hold back these fleeting, nervous smiles. They come and go in an instant, meaninglessly. Natalie Wood had the same problem. Bogart had his lip twitches too, but he was judicious about their deployment. Robert Downey looks appealingly innocent.
Margaret Colin is plumply pretty. She generally holds her face down and looks upward at people with her great big dark attractive calf-like eyes. Poor Kurtwood Smith. A villain again. His voice has a built in sneer, his eyes seem small, and his profile is almost flat. But he's a reliable villain. Some character actors give the impression that they're being treated unfairly by being cast in the same slots repeatedly, but Smith would have a hard time being anything other than what he usually plays. The other players are decent as well.
Perhaps the funniest scene is a brief argument between Downey and a psychiatric patient who believes Kennedy was assassinated by the phone company because he wanted to break it up into smaller companies and the company would never let him do that. Downey tells him that the phone company actually has been split up. The patient says, "Oh -- and you BELIEVE that?" Downey begins to argue with the guy, saying he can bring papers that will prove he's telling the truth, until interrupted by Woods, who begs him to stop, "Please!"
There is nothing new in this film. The disillusioned activist business is superimposed on a traditional plot. But it's easy to watch, amusing in parts, and occasionally brings a welcome tension to the screen. I've seen it several times and rather enjoyed it.
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