In a lot of ways, Harold Becker's The Onion Field feels like a cinematic precursor to David Simon's acclaimed HBO series The Wire. Based on the true crime novel by Joseph Wambaugh (who also co-wrote the screenplay), the movie attempts to offer a sweeping look at life on all sides of the law. It's a story of cops, criminals, courts and prisons; a multi-year saga detailing the road to and aftermath of a horrific murder. While The Wire was able to dig into these subjects (and many more) with a great deal of nuance over the course of its five-season run, The Onion Field struggles to successfully articulate its ideas within a mere two hours. There are plenty of compelling moments here, but the movie is overstuffed, overwritten and overacted.
The film begins with two cops and two criminals. The cops are Detective Karl Francis Hettinger (John Savage, The Deer Hunter) and his partner Detective Ian James Campbell (Ted Danson, Cheers – making his big-screen debut). The criminals are a young African-American ex-con named Jimmy Lee “Youngblood” Smith (Franklyn Seals, Southern Comfort) and a hot-tempered thief named Gregory Ulas Powell (James Woods, Videodrome). We spend a fair amount of time with both sets of men, getting to know who they are and what their daily lives are like. Eventually, the two cops are kidnapped by the two criminals, and the scenario ends with Gregory murdering Ian.
After this point, The Onion Field transforms into a courtroom drama, as Gregory attempts to shift some of the blame to Jimmy and both men make a valiant legal effort to escape the death penalty. Meanwhile, poor Karl quits his job and attempts to start over as an ordinary civilian, but he finds readjusting to “normal life” awfully difficult in the wake of the traumatic experiences he's had.
Wambaugh co-wrote the screenplay with Eric Roth (who would later go on to work on such acclaimed films as Forrest Gump, The Insider and Munich), so it's a little difficult to figure out who to blame for the film's oddly inconsistent dialogue. Roughly 70% of the time, the characters sound like real people having real conversations – but every so often, the movie serves up a Very Important Speech that makes the character delivering it sound like a ventriloquist dummy. Too often, the movie doesn't trust the audience to pick up on the themes it's delivering (and the themes aren't subtle, even without the speeches).
There's a fair amount of The Deer Hunter in The Onion Field's DNA, too, and not just because John Savage plays a central role in both films. There are structural similarities: The Deer Hunter offered a look at life before, during and after a war, and The Onion Field looks at life before, during and after a murder. This is a smaller-scale affair than Michael Cimino's sprawling Vietnam saga, but both films have a loose, meandering quality in the early scenes and a mournful, melodramatic quality in the later ones. The Onion Field tends to be considerably less eloquent (and considerably more conventional) in the way it expresses its ideas, but there's a similar desire to look into the dark heart of things the American public would rather ignore.
Unfortunately, the film would also rather ignore certain things. Despite its unflinching portrait of everything from depression to bureaucracy to prison rape, the movie has a very old-fashioned attitude about the police department. All of the policemen depicted in the film are noble, selfless and heroic – a portrait that would feel a little odd in any post-Serpico movie, but certainly feels odd in a film this devoted to offering a depiction of “the real world.” We can have a harsh look at the realities of incarceration, and we can have an examination of the complex messiness of the American legal system, but when it comes to cops, the movie quickly turns a blind eye.
The Onion Field is a frustrating movie, but it springs to life every time James Woods is onscreen (and he has at least as much screentime as the top-billed Savage). It's a star-making performance for the actor; an electrifying portrait of murderous rage and misplaced confidence. Gregory isn't a smart guy, but he's so persuasive and overbearing that he becomes the default leader of any group he belongs to (this trend continues after he goes to prison). While most of the major cast members tend to succumb to the film's penchant for melodrama (Savage and Seals in particular are playing to the cheap seats), Woods never strikes a false note (even during scenes that are undeniably melodramatic).
It's clear that Becker, Wambaugh and the rest of the filmmakers had lofty ambitions. Unfortunately, it's hard to escape the feeling that the movie could have used a little less ambition. The higher Becker reaches, the clunkier his film gets. It starts out feeling like a solid Sidney Lumet imitation, but by the end you're half-expecting Al Pacino to burst in and reprise his “you're out of order!” speech from ...And Justice for All. The Onion Field is a lofty failure.
The Onion Field
Rating: ★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 122 minutes
Release Year: 1979