At some point in any Tom Cruise movie, there’s the pivotal moment when Cruise, having displayed his Cockiness and Callow Youth, realizes it’s time to hunker down and fly that plane/mix that drink/protest that war/win that land rush. In A Few Good Men, the moment takes place in court — Cruise realizes he’s got to win that trial — only it’s not the setting that’s new. It’s what’s going on in Cruise.
He plays Lieut. Daniel Kaffee, an arrogant young navy lawyer assigned to defend two stoic Marines accused of murder. The raw facts of the case aren’t in dispute. The defendants, Lance Corporal Dawson (Wolfgang Bodison) and Private First Class Downey (James Marshall), have admitted they entered the room of one of their platoon member, stuffed a rag down his throat, and left him bound and gagged. Approximately half and hour later, he was dead. What Kaffee has learned, though, is the two men were without murderous intent. They were engaged in the common — if unofficial — practice of Marine discipline known as ”code red,” in which platoon members orchestrate a kind of sanctioned hazing, physically abusing any recruit who has fallen short of standards. (It’s their way of getting him back in line.) It appears, too, that the defendants were acting on orders from their supervising officer (Kiefer Sutherland) — and, what’s more, that he was following a directive from the base commander, Col. Nathan R. Jessep (Jack Nicholson), a self-righteous autocrat who understands only too well that military authority derives from elaborate gamesmanship.
Now, Kaffee has put Jessep on the stand. To win the case, he needs to prove that Jessep ordered the code red. There’s just one problem: Kaffee has no proof — and if he doesn’t nail Jessep to the wall, his military career will probably end in disgrace. As Cruise and Nicholson bear down on each other, the movie becomes intricate and electrifying meeting of the minds. Since we’re seeing the action through Kaffee’s eyes — through the hair-trigger shifts in his legal strategy — the scene depends on our belief in his nimble intellectual powers. We have to buy the fact that he can outmanipulate a master manipulation. And damned if Cruise doesn’t bring it off. In A Few Good Men, this young superstar performs with his usual brashness (he tosses of his lines like guitar riffs), only now it’s laced with a hurtling mental agility. His performance has rhythm and verve. By the end of the movie, we’re convinced that Kaffee is at once a classic Cruise hotshot and a great lawyer, and that the two are inseparable.
Directed by Rob Reiner, from Aaron Sorkin’s adaptation of his hit Broadway play, A Few Good Men is a thrillingly effective crowd pleaser. Like all courtroom dramas, it’s gimmicky and, on some essential level, synthetic. It’s really an elaborate piece of construction, with too many links to earlier Cruise vehicles (the business with Kaffee living in the shadow of his deceased lawyer father is just leftover Top Gun). Yet when a courtroom drama has been made with this much skill and star power, it’s an irresistible throwback to the sort of sharp-edged entertainment Hollywood once provided with regularity (and, these days, has just forgotten how to make).
The premise — a legal inquisition on a military base — is hardly original. It recalls A Soldier’s Story and, most famous, The Caine Mutiny (both of which were also done in stage versions), in which Humphrey Bogart had a great, wormy performance as Captain Queeg, the paranoid disciplinarian who’s the most obvious model for Nicholson’s Colonel Jessep. Yet unlike those films, A Few Good Men goes out of its way not to turn into an elemental indictment of military ethics. Form the opening-credit sequence, in which a row of Marines enact a rifle-twirling drill with hypnotic synchroneity, the movie recognizes that there’s something powerful and compelling about the mechanized fanaticism of Marine discipline. The two young defendants are ready to go to jail for life rather than be dishonored. We’re asked to view the Marines with respectful ambiguity, as trained supermen who possess courage that can easily slide off into fascist self-regard.
It’s the actors who carry the day. Nicholson pushes his scene-stealing sarcasm to lethal extremes. He isn’t on screen long, but his performance has a menacing vitality. We look into the eyes of this hostile, imperious colonel and think, yes, he’s a Marine — he knows what it means to kill somebody (and, more than that, to want to). Kevin Bacon, as the prosecutor, acts with a sly self-depreciation that’s funny and winning, and Kiefer Sutherland, ears jutting out from his head like malignant growths, plays a Marine zealot with scary conviction. As the Navy lawyer forced to work with Kaffe, when she’d rather take on the case herself, Demi Moore has the one thankless role (she’s just there to flirt with Cruise), but she carries it off with panache; she helps humanize Kaffee. As for Cruise, this may be his best performance to date. In the wrong role, he can be hideously inadequate — trying to express Deep Spiritual Anguish in Born on the Fourth of July, he was like a high school jock impersonating Marlon Brando. But when he gets to parade his quick-spririted bravado, and to show some urgency and cunning besides, he proves that, in his sleeker-than-life way, he’s an actor as well as a star. A-