James Woods did not receive an Oscar nomination, despite being nominated for a Golden Globe, for portraying Gregory Powell in The Onion Field.
James Woods plays one of the two criminals Gregory Powell who is a small time crook who decides to do a few robberies with his criminal associate Jimmy Smith (Franklyn Seales). Woods is great at playing a criminal quite simply as there is such a volatility he brings that is a perfect fit for Gregory Powell, who, in addition to loving crime, also is more than a bit mentally off. Woods brings the needed unpredictability in his performance as you never quite know what one should expect from Powell. Woods is excellent in any scene where it seems Powell is amiable enough that there is still a danger at all times as Woods has this manic energy that brings such a spontaneity in his performance that works extremely well in making Powell a completely unpredictable and always very dangerous presence in the film.
Woods is terrific in every one of his early scenes as he carries such a menace about the character that is always underneath the surface even when Powell seems to be trying to make Smith his friend. Woods is great at being such a live wire in his performance as he so effortlessly brings that tinge of insanity in his performance while always seeming completely natural in his performance. In the early moments Woods completely makes us meet Powell and allows us to understand the odd mindset of the man before he and Smith are faithfully stopped by two cops Karl Hettinger (John Savage) and Ian Campbell (Ted Danson). The cops though are quickly surprised and both disarmed making it so Powell and Smith take both of them hostage and go on to bring them to an onion field which Powell claims is just to allow he and Smith the needed time to get away from their pursuers.
Woods is so good in the kidnapping scene because of how casual he plays the part especially when compared to Seales's performance which purposeful shows Smith hiding his fear by acting out in an intense fashion. Woods commands these scenes without question as Powell almost seems to have a friendly banter with the cops at times even claiming that he'll let them find their guns that way they won't have to pay for them. Woods makes all of the banter seem completely genuine and his portrayal of Powell allows the relaxed attitude of Powell seem completely believable. Woods's relaxed method makes it all the more brutal when Powell suddenly kills Campbell. Woods makes the act seem all the more senseless, which it was since Powell did thinking, wrongly, they had already committed a major crime, because it seems so random yet wholly fitting to the Powell that he has created in the film.
The two men are unable to catch Hettinger who runs off and eventually they are both caught and put on trial for the murder. This where the film starts to become particularly disjointed, focusing too much time on Hettinger's story since it does not handle it especially well, and not quite enough on Powell and Smith's. The time that Woods does have available to him is still more than anything as he continues to bring so much depth to Powell in his scenes. There's a particularly effective scenes in the court proceedings where Powell, defending himself, tells about how he was like a father to his family when he was younger. Woods again is very strong in this scene, even really quite moving as he so honestly expresses yet another facet about Powell as a person. Even though we see not of the past Woods suggests it wonderfully and again makes it still fit with the man we know from the present.
The film really does lose its way as it goes on since it seems to want to make a major point about the way Powell and Smith try to use the system to stave off their execution yet it gives it so little time to explore the details of this. This is only made all the more problematic since Woods easily gives the best performance in the film and is the most compelling element of it. I would have preferred more time to his character rather than the fairly repetitive and unfortunately not particularly powerful scenes depicting Savage's character's struggle with his survivor's guilt. It would have been interesting to see as Powell and Smith become even savvy with the system, and the ways they try to exploit it. That would have been particularly great since Woods could have brought us even more sides of Powell since he excelled with bringing in creating Powell into a man, a bad man, but an actual human being who has done evil. Although the film falters Woods never does giving a very good performance that deserved a superior film.