Total Recall: James Woods's Best Movies
We count down the best-reviewed work of the Straw Dogs star.
A rare showcase in a résumé full of supporting roles, 1987's Cop finds Woods playing, well, a cop -- albeit one whose unconventional style and general disdain for rules costs him his badge while he's in the middle of the case of his career. Writer/director James B. Harris, who previously worked with Woods on 1982's Fast-Walking, adapted the script from James Ellroy's novel Blood on the Moon -- and although the result proved less than arresting for audiences, who mostly ignored Cop while it was in theaters, it impressed critics like Roger Ebert, who wrote simply, "Woods was born to play this role."
After spending the better part of a decade toiling in bit parts in films and TV movies, Woods scored his breakout role in Harold Becker's The Onion Field. A dramatization of the Joseph Wambaugh novel inspired by the real-life case of two homicidal maniacs who dragged a pair of cops into a field to kill them, it was probably too profoundly disquieting to attract major mainstream success -- but Woods' performance as the charming psychopath Greg Powell earned him a Golden Globe nomination, and Variety concurred, writing that "James Woods as the near-psychotic Powell is chillingly effective, creating a flakiness in the character that exudes the danger of a live wire near a puddle."
With an original cut weighing in at nearly four hours, Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in America is a true epic -- and if Leone had been able to convince his producers, it would have been split into two three-hour films. But unlike a lot of sprawling dramas, America justifies its extended running time; Leone, working from Harry Grey's novel The Hoods, had a lot of story to tell -- and with Woods helping anchor a large cast that also included Robert De Niro, Tuesday Weld, and Elizabeth McGovern, he had the actors to tell it. Studio interference resulted in a bowdlerized American cut that reportedly infuriated Leone, but the end result still haunted critics like Dave Kehr of the Chicago Reader, who was moved to write, "Every gesture is immediate, and every gesture seems eternal."
Woods received the first of his two Academy Award nominations for his work in Oliver Stone's Salvador, a 1986 war drama about a rather unlikable American journalist who's burned so many bridges that his only professional recourse is to head to El Salvador with his unemployed DJ buddy (Jim Belushi) to try and find stories in what they initially regard as a relatively inconsequential war. Like a lot of films that try and shine a light on war while shots are still being fired, Salvador bombed at the box office -- but it found an appreciative audience with writers like Rob Gonsalves of eFilmCritic, who called it "One of Oliver Stone's best films, and absolutely James Woods' best performance."
Loosely inspired by a case from the fascinating files of real-life attorney Tony Serra, 1989's True Believer gave Woods a chance to go toe-to-toe with rising star Robert Downey, Jr. in a courtroom thriller about a pair of lawyers who uncover a deep, dark conspiracy behind the imprisonment of a young Korean (Yuji Okumoto) accused of a gang-related murder. The role of bruised idealist Eddie Dodd called for a magnetic, finely layered performance -- and Woods responded, according to Time's Richard Schickel, who wrote that "Woods' angry energy is clarifying as well as terrifying, and when he unleashes it (usually without warning), the effect is to focus our attention where it belongs, not on a suspense story but on the mysteries of human behavior."
In case you were wondering, here are Woods's top 10 movies according RT users' scores:
1. Once Upon a Time in America -- 92%
2. Casino -- 91%
3. John Q -- 83%
4. Salvador -- 83%
5. The Virgin Suicides -- 80%
6. Videodrome -- 79%
7. Contact -- 74%
8. Nixon -- 72%
9. Any Given Sunday -- 70%
10. Diggstown -- 70%
Finally, here's Woods moonlighting at a Kwik-E-Mart in Springfield: