"A Sensational James Woods in a Sensational Thriller"
No, it's not based on a John Grisham novel. Guess what? That's a huge plus. And for those who think James Woods lacks star quality, think again. Suspenseful and humorous and not a little bit touching, this is that rare cortroom thriller that doesn't treat its audience like popcorn-munching simpletons. It's the kind of literate, adult entertainment you can easily respect the next morning.James Woods is sensational as a cynical Greenwich Village lawyer who's offered a chance at redemption when he seeks to overturn the conviction of a Chinese inmate he's convinced is innocent of a murder from eight years prior. The screenplay by Wesley Strick is a honey: full of tantalizing twists and turns, witty dialogue, plausible characters. And the underrated director Joseph Ruben, who previously scored back-to-back successes with 1984's Dreamscape and 1987's The Stepfather, gives the proceedings tautness, tension, and the kind of storytelling fluidity missing from most films today. It's rare for a thriller to be swift yet not rushed, where pertinent information is disclosed but not hammered home, so the audience is on even ground with the hero: informed yet still inquisitive. Ruben manages to sustain narrative drive while alternating between flashbacks (filmed in B/W with a crisp vitality by cinematographer John Lindley) and the present goings-on with remarkable precision; and he makes uncanny use of the camera, using it actively and expressively yet with a discipline that prevents the actors from being overshadowed. I can't exactly aver that the plot is airtight from scrutiny -- even when Strick shows deftness with creating story revelations, the manner in which they're aligned is a bit too reliant on coincidence -- but as a work of fiction it easily passes under the suspension-of-disbelief test. Woods, in an ugly gray ponytail and an array of retro twill suits, is electric in the courtroom and emotionally accessible on the home front (his character's self-disgust over squandering his potential is rather poignant), and he's given first-rate support by Robert Downey, Jr. (as his idealistic assistant), Margaret Colin (as a private investigator), Kurtwood Smith (as a duplicitous D.A.), and Tom Bower (as a pivotal defense witness).Director Ruben was the winner of the Grand Prix award at the Cognac Festival du Film Policier for his work here, and the film itself was nominated for Best Motion Picture by the Edgar Allen Poe Awards. The DVD boasts a fairly good video transfer and an excellent audio mix. Time to expose yourself to this underrated gem on home video, folks.