We saw this movie back when it first came out on VHS, 1990 or so. And for some reason, I got the urge to watch it again, so into the Netflix DVD queue it went. Some movies don't hold up on rewatching, but I enjoyed it again.
James Woods plays Eddie Dodd, New York lawyer operating out of a shabby office near Chinatown. Once a famous left-wing advocate for the poor and downtrodden, champion of trendy social causes, he's become cynical, specializing in defending (uniformly guilty) drug dealers. He suppresses his sadness with copious amounts of marijuana.
But Eddie acquires an idealistic young assistant, played by Robert Downey, Jr. Who browbeats him into taking a case brought in over the transom by a tearful Chinese mom: her son's in Sing Sing, being prosecuted for killing a would-be Nazi assassin in self-defense. That's easy enough to fix, but the son's in the slammer for allegedly killing a gang leader in Chinatown eight years back. Eddie decides to go for a retrial on that charge.
Which involves unravelling what happened back then. Which (as you might expect) troubles the very powerful D. A. who tries to dissuade Eddie from the retrial. Which only makes Eddie more dogged in his pursuit of the truth.
Truth be told, the movie's plot is kind of generic. But I thought (and still think) James Woods was just fantastic in it. He usually plays bad or squirrelly guys. But his performance here is actually heroic.
Brief aside on that "squirrelly": he played "Aldo" in another 80's movie, Eyewitness. And one of the cop characters (Steven Hill) describes him thus: "When he was a kid, Aldo must have wanted to be a suspect when he grew up."