Review: A Few Good Men
Tom Cruise plays Navy lawyer Daniel Kaffee, a man who lives in his father’s gigantic shadow, who has successfully plead out every case in the nine months since he graduated from Harvard, allowing him to get in some baseball hitting practice. However, when two U.S. Marines (Wolfgang Bodison and James Marshall) are charged with the murder of another Marine after a supposed hazing of the supposedly unfit soldier at Gitmo, Kaffee is unlucky enough to be paired with idealistic ‘second chair’ counsel Lt. Cdr. Joanne Galloway (Demi Moore), and two defendants who stubbornly refuse to co-operate with the whole ‘plead it out’ mantra Kaffee seemingly lives by. You see, the two Privates believe they did nothing wrong, as they were following direct orders given to them by a superior officer. It’s an unofficial practice known as a ‘Code Red’. The defence, led by Kaffee’s baseball pal Captain Jack Ross (Kevin Bacon), argues the men carried out their punishment of their own volition. Jack Nicholson plays Col. Nathan Jessup, who along with humourless Lt. Kendrick (Kiefer Sutherland) are believed to be the men who ordered the ‘Code Red’. Kevin Pollak plays Kaffee’s right-hand man Lt. Weinberg, and J.T. Walsh plays Jessup’s shadowy long-time friend and now subordinate Lt. Col. Matthew Markinson.
Director Rob Reiner (“Stand By Me”, “When Harry Met Sally…”, “The Princess Bride”, “Misery”) sure did have one helluva hot streak starting with 1984’s “This is Spinal Tap” and concluding with this 1992 courtroom thriller. He then fell off a cliff with 1994’s “North”, rebounded briefly with “The American President”, and has been swimming somewhere between mediocrity and obscurity ever since. But that period between 84 and 92…man, what a time.
This for me is one of the best courtroom thrillers of all-time, and the script by Aaron Sorkin (“The Social Network”, Reiner’s lovely “The American President”, TV’s walk-and-talk “The West Wing”) contains no real evidence of being derived from a stage play that I could ascertain., which is as it should be (The play was loosely based on a real-life incident, by the way). Director Reiner doesn’t allow things to look stage-bound, either. He has opened things up without really calling attention to that fact. Both men do a masterful job here, with the only shitty piece of writing in the entire film being Demi Moore’s ‘juris-dick-tion’ speech, which is a bit on the nose.
The real plus here is the cast that Reiner has assembled, which is virtually flawless from top to bottom. Tom Cruise is in peak ‘Arrogant, cynical, cocky prick with a conscience deep inside’ mode here and it’s one of his best-ever roles and performances. Demi Moore, meanwhile gives one of her two good performances in this film, with the other being in “Ghost” (She was well-cast and hot as hell in “Disclosure”, though). She’s immensely likeable and offers up some quite believable insecurity for her role. Jack Nicholson earned an Oscar nomination for his showy character turn here as the snarling, cold-hearted, uber-macho Colonel. He owns the film from his very first profane moment, and while he’s in ‘Jack’ mode to some extent, he nonetheless gives one of the most memorable star supporting turns in cinematic history. You can’t take your eyes off him, the sadistic glee and power trip the character has whenever he’s in a room with people who are intimidated by him (which is most of the time) is frankly hilarious. The final testimony scene between Nicholson and Cruise is a masterful piece of cinema and acting by all involved. Forget the film’s most famous exchange though, for me the entire scene is gold. I’m especially fond of Nicholson’s profane ‘You fucked with the wrong Marine!’ monologue.
The star trio are backed up by a mostly superlative supporting cast, most notably Kiefer Sutherland and the late, underrated J.T. Walsh as Nicholson’s chief underlings. Walsh and the perfectly chosen Sutherland are capable of being intimidating on screen, but their characters are clearly shit-scared of Nicholson’s character. In fairness, Nicholson threatens to kill Sutherland, and Walsh…is in the vicinity to hear the threat. Walsh was a great unsung talent whose work often went unnoticed because he played somewhat ‘bland’, ‘normal’ villains. Here he gets a little bit of a change of pace playing a shadowy conspirator with the slight hint of a conscience. It’s a shame that Kevin Bacon will likely be best remembered for “Footloose” (which would be nothing without the soundtrack), and not the excellent body of character work he provided in films like this, “Sleepers”, “Mystic River”, “JFK” (where he stole the show), “The Woodsman”, “The River Wild”, and even “Flatliners”. Here he gets to play Cruise’s friendly nemesis, someone who isn’t remotely a villain but simply the opposing attorney. He’s a dutiful officer of the court, and he worries that his fellow legal eagle Cruise is fighting an unwinnable battle. Some people think Kevin Pollak plays a rather stereotyped character in this. Yes, he’s probably here to bring in some comparisons to Nazism, in a story about soldiers ‘following orders’ to commit horrific acts. That’s likely true. However, Pollak is good in the role and also brings some welcome levity so the usage of him is valid if you ask me. It’s probably my favourite film role of his to date. There’s probably good reason why Wolfgang Bodison and James Marshall (who was well-cast in the underrated boxing drama “Gladiator”) never quite made it into top-tier actors or even B-level, really, but they’re well-chosen here as the frightened but tight-lipped defendants. Also look out for a really terrific, underrated performance from J. A. Preston as the no-nonsense, but fair judge, and earlier on a funny turn by John M. Jackson as Moore’s S. O. There isn’t a bad performance in the film per se, but Reiner giving a straight cameo to Christopher Guest wasn’t the best idea. The other cameos by Cuba Gooding Jr. and Noah Wyle work well-enough, but Guest looks like he’s doing deadpan comedy. It’s not funny though, nor is it meant to be, so the performance merely distracts.
I won’t deny that the basics of the plot aren’t terribly complex, but I think in addition to the cast, what really makes this riveting viewing is the essential David vs. Goliath aspect to the court case. This is basically two guys (and their legal team) against The Marines. That’s one hell of an uphill battle they’ve got against them. One of the most entertaining courtroom flicks of all-time, this one’s got star power in front of and behind the camera and is a great yarn to boot. Easily one of the best films of the 1990s, a damn good decade.