Cuba Gooding, Jr.
2 Hrs., 18 Mins.
A Few Good Men
ob Reiner’s A Few Good Men (1992) is a hammy, rip-roaring, Oscar clip-baiting crowd pleaser, and that’s exactly what I like best about it. It is an old-fashioned courtroom drama that takes after Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder (1959) and Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men (1957), overlong and overdramatic popcorn movies that happened to also be smart, efficient popcorn movies.
A Few Good Men, adapted from the popular stage play written by Aaron
Sorkin (who also writes the film), is no different: it works in broad strokes and Hollywood Golden Age levels of patriotism, but it also incisively tells an absorbing story for 138 minutes and never lets up. Here, the various predictabilities and courtroom drama clichés are just part of the territory, and the film makes for such a good time that we learn to accept them.
It finds its basis in the accidental, Guantanamo Bay-based death of Marine Private William Santiago (Michael DeLorenzo), apparently a result of foul play at the hands of Harold Dawson and Louden Dowey (Wolfgang Bodison and James Marshall), a private and lance corporal. Though it’s unclear if such was caused by a direct order from a higher-up or simply by Navy personnel letting out their frustrations (Santiago’s reputed to be something of a widely disliked slacker), the investigation is dropped in the lap of Lieutenant Daniel Kaffee (Tom Cruise), a young, cocky U.S. Navy lawyer known for his partiality toward the art of the plea bargain.
This irks Lieutenant Commander JoAnne Galloway (Demi Moore), who unsuccessfully asked to take on the case before it became Kaffee’s property. While the latter’s certain his usual practices will work just as well this time around, even undergoing pre-trial negotiations with the prosecutor (Kevin Bacon), Galloway’s determined to sway his thinking.
She suspects that a “code red” order – a cruel kind of extrajudicial punishment that resembles hazing – might have had something to do with Santiago’s untimely demise. This means that Dawson and Dowey could theoretically step away from probable murder charges, and that the base’s head honchos, like the braggadocio-reliant Colonel Nathan R. Jessup (Jack Nicholson), might know more than they’re letting on.
And while A Few Good Men hits all the familiar courtroom drama beats we’ve come to expect in the genre – with over-explanations, fiery monologues delivered with teeth and saliva, verbal games of one-upmanship, and “shocking” confessions among them – we willingly devour all in front of us. Is this because Sorkin’s screenplay’s a diamond mine of rousing speeches, lightning-quick verbal takedowns, and searing one-liners that’d later help make up the Aaron Sorkin Brand™? Because the three leads (especially Nicholson, who pulls no punches here) chew the scenery like Jack Link’s jerky but seem to also be savoring the flavors provided by their well-cooked lines? Because Reiner’s enduringly idealized directorial style suits this material so well that we’re tempted to stoop to spitting out clichéd declaratives and say out that the movie’s such a hoot that we practically forgot we’d been watching a movie until “The End” pops up?
Better not question all the Chayefsky lite that comes about: escapist fare as simultaneously intelligent and arresting as A Few Good Men is such an infrequency that we don’t even much get offended by its more hackneyed impulses. (Sorkin can’t stop himself from writing blasé expositional dialogue, as if afraid we won’t be able to understand what’s going on unless it’s spoonfed.) In a movie this littered with pleasing tell-offs via Cruise and Moore that make me want to stand up and cheer, who cares if I rolled my eyes at the hacky-but-now-iconic line delivering of “you can’t handle the truth” by Nicholson? Everything else is so much fun. B+