NEW YORK — WHAT ever happened to the idealists of the 1960s - the people who fought for ``people power'' against the government, the schools, and every other institution in sight? Most of them are still around, and some have clung to their old beliefs in one form or another. But the world around them has changed, and adapting to new conditions can be hard. Take the hero of the new film ``True Believer,'' for instance. His name is Eddie Dodd, and once upon a time he was a fighting radical. He went to law school, and when he graduated he was ready to turn society upside down. It's the late '80s now, though, and the old battles have taken a strange new shape. Eddie still takes on the police and the criminal-justice system, but now his clients are mainly drug dealers - sleazy crooks who, everyone knows, are guilty, guilty, guilty.
Eddie always gets them off, and he tells himself this is all right because he's defending individual rights against the system. But it's obvious that this is idealism at its worst. And even Eddie can't help seeing this when his new assistant arrives on the scene: Roger, a young idealist of the '80s who can't believe what a small-timer Eddie has turned out to be. Prodded by Roger and his own conscience, Eddie decides to take a really tough case - defending an Asian prisoner who killed another inmate in self-defense. Studying the situation, Eddie decides his client was innocent of the charge that originally landed him in jail years ago. And he decides to prove this no matter how unlikely it seems, or how hard it is to dredge up facts that have long been buried.
The story is pretty far-fetched at times, and it doesn't unfold smoothly; it lurches from one incident to another without worrying much about the in-between moments. What glues it all together is James Woods's performance. Ever since ``The Onion Field,'' he has been winning my prize as one of Hollywood's most intense and energetic actors. He can strike out once in a while, as he did in ``The Boost'' recently. But he doesn't let up for a minute as Eddie Dodd, even when the script gets silly or the director pushes the action and the dialogue too hard. Also convincing is Robert Downey Jr. as Roger, the wide-eyed young attorney who turns out to be no slouch in the intensity department (or the idealism department) himself.
``True Believer'' was directed by Joseph Ruben, whose earlier movies include ``Dreamscape'' and ``The Stepfather,'' a first-rate thriller.
He doesn't quite make ``True Believer'' believable: The story has more twists than he can handle, and some of the characters aren't fleshed out effectively. It's a movie with a real subject, though - how the aspirations of '60s radicals might not be completely irrelevant in the '80s, after all.