The film revolves around former radical attorney Eddie Dodd (Woods), whose practice now consists mostly of defending known drug dealers. When the idealistic young lawyer Roger Baron (Downey) joins his practice, he is soon disgusted by this, welcoming the plea of a mother whose son is facing a murder charge stemming from a gang-related prison fight. She maintains her son Shu Kai Kim (Okumoto) is also innocent of the murder which sent him there to begin with. Dodd has his doubts, but agrees to take the original case, winning a retrial where he soon faces off in court against Robert Reynard (Smith), the district attorney and an old foe. It quickly transpires that there's far more to the case than meets the eye...
This film provides examples of:
- Amoral Attorney: Roger feels Eddie has become this by the time of the film, due to making a living defending drug dealers after having fought for radical causes in the past. Eddie denies it and says opposing the war on drugs is a worthy cause too, though it's pretty clear he's fallen a long way from his glory days. It turns out Robert Reynard really is one, since he framed a man to protect his confidential informant, apparently without any qualms.
- Clear Their Name: Eddie and Roger's goal on behalf of Shu Kai Kim. By the end of the film, they succeed.
- Deadpan Snarker: Eddie, like a lot of characters portrayed by James Woods.
- Duel to the Death: Shu Kai Kim engages in one with a member of a rival prison gang at the beginning of the film.
- Frame-Up: It turns out that Shu Kai Kim was framed to protect a confidential informant by the district attorney and police.
- Hollywood Law: Eddie seems to defend drug dealers solely by arguing for jury nullification, citing the invasions of constitutional rights in the war on drugs, and saying they should find his client "not guilty" in protest. In reality, the prosecutor would immediately object when he started on anything except the evidence presented, and the judge would sustain. No respectable judge allows lawyers to argue for jury nullification in front of them. It's also somewhat unlikely his client would get a new trial due to just one eyewitness coming forward to say someone else committed the murder (and a less than credible one at that). It's forgotten as well that, although he didn't commit the murder he'd been sent to prison for, he did kill another inmate during a staged death match. It's mentioned the prosecution will make a deal for that if he pleads guilty to both crimes early on, but then that's dropped when he goes to trial on the original murder charge instead. He gets acquitted of that, but not for the prison killing. Presumably that charge was dropped too, but it's never made clear.
- Interchangeable Asian Cultures: Shu Kai Kim was identified as the killer in a lineup. Dodd tries to get the cop who supervised the lineup to admit that all of the other people in it were Chinese, while Kim is Korean, which could have helped set him apart from the decoys. The question is stricken by the judge, however, who rules that the detective is not an expert in ethnicity and could not distinguish between them by sight alone. Plus Kim had long hair and goatee (resembling the killer) which none of the rest did. Also, he was accused of committing a murder to get into a Chinese-American gang, which no one seems to find odd. To top it off, the actor playing the suspect is a Japanese-American.
- Miscarriage of Justice: Shu Kai Kim was convicted of a murder he didn't commit due to false evidence presented by the district attorney and police.
- Very Loosely Based on a True Story: The film's plot is loosely based on the story of Chol Soo Lee, who was similarly wrongly convicted for gang-related murder, killed another prisoner, was exonerated of the first crime and then released on both counts after a deal. However, he wasn't framed to protect an informant, so far as we know, and this all took place earlier than in the film.
- Wide-Eyed Idealist: Roger, and apparently Eddie as well in the past, which he regains by the end of the film (thus the title).
- Worthy Opponent: District Attorney Robert Reynard considers Eddie this, speaking admiringly of how he once defeated an entire team of prosecutors that included Reynard while defending members of the Black Panther Party.