Few Good Men, A

Reviewed By Slyder
Posted 05/05/09 15:17:25

"Ridiculously Obvious but still Entertaining"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

If anything, Director Rob Reiner’s 1992 effort A Few Good Men proved, or should I say confirmed 3 things, Jack Nicholson’s assured magnetic genius, Tom Cruise’s rampant mediocrity, and Demi Moore’s utter lack of talent. It also signaled another fact: Rob Reiner, the director of this very entertaining yet deeply flawed courtroom drama, managed to pull out an apparent winner here (and a major box office hit when it was released), but it was clear in this movie that his once steady grip in his filmmaking craft was beginning to slip.

The premise, adapted by Aaron Sorkin (which was based on his equally popular 1989 play) and an uncredited William Goldman, is an interesting one for sure: During the night at the Guantanamo Base in Cuba, two soldiers, Lance Corporal Harold Dawson (Wolfgang Bodison) and Private First Class Louden Downey (James Marshall) break into the quarters of another soldier, Private First Class William Santiago, and haze him. They execute what the Marine jargon calls a “code red” which is a disciplinary tactic applied when the soldier goes astray in his discipline or when it comes to the chain of command. The hazing however goes horribly wrong and Private Santiago ends up dead and both Dawson and Downey end up under arrest and facing charges of murder. Right there and there, its obvious this is going both ways, the case is pretty much cut and dried, or there is some murky cover-ups going around to prevent possibly people higher in the chain of command from getting any flak and just want this case to go away as quickly as possible. Obviously, it’s the latter; enter nosy Lt. Cmdr Joanne Galloway (Moore), a JAG lawyer whom immediately believes that both Dawson and Downey are innocent, and that they simply followed orders (is such a thing possible? Didn’t the Nazis try that line of defense way back a while and failed?). She asks for the case to assigned to her, but to her (ultimately rather big) annoyance, it is handed to naïve JAG counsel Lt. Daniel Kaffee (Cruise), a wet-behind the ears lawyer with a knack of settling cases out of court rather than fighting them in court (to the point of never setting a foot in court ever) so that he can have more time to play baseball. Galloway, apart from being annoyed at the fact of being assigned to assist an officer she outranks, sees Kaffee in her own words as a “used car salesman” cashing on the success of his late father who we hear was once a respected jurist, while Kaffee himself thinks of her as a fucking annoying bitch… Wait, that’s actually what I think; well, Kaffee thinks along those lines… so anyways, these two, along with fellow friend and researcher Lt. Sam Weinberg (Kevin Pollack) try to go and find whatever case they can muster in Cuba, where in Guantanamo, the commanding officer, Col. Nathan Jessep (Nicholson) has a big promotion coming up and wants to get this rather minor annoyance of a case out of the way as quickly as possible and is counting on his loyal officers, 2nd in command Lt. Col. Matthew Markinson (JT Walsh), and platoon leader Lt. Jonathan Kendrick (Kiefer Sutherland), to stand by him. Will the 2 men and a woman Dream Team pull it off and have Dawson and Downey acquitted, or will they go down burning in flames and allow prosecutor (and friend of Kaffee) Capt. Jack Ross (Kevin Bacon) get his men?

The answer of course is quite predictable.

But of course, in the words of Morpheus (the Matrix one, kids), there is a difference between knowing the path and walking the path. Fair enough, every courtroom drama despite its mostly predictable outcome has its share of qualities that makes it remarkable and entertaining. Rob Reiner wisely places the focus on the main characters themselves, flesh out their motivations and backgrounds. It’s a great idea, but the execution is surprisingly bad for the most part. Exhibit A: Tom Cruise’s and Demi Moore’s characters. To say these two are oil and water would be a serious understatement, in fact, they’re both such absolutely detestable pieces of shit, with Cruise’s Kaffee being a cocky and snobbish bastard and Moore’s Galloway being an arrogant and annoying bitch that you actually end up actually HATING these two assholes. Mind you, do not mistake the word HATE with the word DISLIKE. Compare the characters in this movie with the characters of the far superior film Unforgiven; William Munny is a cold-blooded killer turned pathetic soul, Ned Logan is a holier-than-though and arrogant black guy, while the Schofield Kid is just arrogant and a blind sack of shit. What’s the difference between the two casts of characters? Is that while Unforgiven’s cast are utter scumbags and you dislike how they are, they actually have some human qualities that enable you actually care for them. In this film, the two leads are so despicable that they have pretty much no redeeming qualities whatsoever, and you end up hating these people with a passion, to the point that you WANT them to lose and they DESERVE to lose. Galloway is bad enough, but Kaffee, who’s supposed to go from scumbag to righteous advocate of the truth, comes off even worse in that department because his transition is simply never believable.

Exhibit B: Tom Cruise and Demi Moore themselves. See, It doesn’t help things much when you have these two overact their characters to such ridiculous extremes. Cruise hams it up to no end, and his “drunk scene” stands out as one of the more awfully pathetic examples of over-acting out there and deserving of countless ribbings. To his credit however, whenever the film settles down and demands moments of subtlety, Cruise lays off the “hamming” and remembers to actually act. Cruise’s usual mediocrity however doesn’t compare to Moore and her continued brand of dull-as-dishwater performances, made all the more excruciating thanks to her coming into every scene with a “look at me, I’m TRYING to act” approach that just makes it more obvious as to how out of her depth she is. Furthermore, her trademark icy cold, blank, lustful “come here, spread my legs and fuck me” look just does not do her any favors as she tries to come off as a serious and dedicated overachiever. I have to say that I get a good laugh at what Roger Ebert wrote in his review about an observation that a fellow critic did to him that Galloway’s character seems to have been written originally as a man before the actual rewrites took place, and therefore that explained the rather puzzling aspect of seeing two attractive people shooting a bit of romantic sparks in one scene and never actually hitting it off from there and rather simply discarding that subplot. I actually read in the trivia they had a sex scene planned for both characters (since both Cruise and Moore are no strangers to nude scenes, I guess that was initially stipulated in their contracts) but was “discarded since there wasn’t any point to it at all in the movie” …and the lords of flesh cry yet again at another missed opportunity.

Exhibit C: Kevin Pollak’s rather invisible role as Lt. Weinberg. Don’t want to hit too hard on poor Kevin because honestly, he was given very little to work with, despite the fact that his character is actually one that has some weight of importance, but at times, or should I say most of the time, you hardly even knew he was even there, even in a meaty exchange with Moore, the tension lasts only the amount of time you shrug your shoulders and move on towards the next scene.

Amazingly, despite the constant clusterfuck of sniping between the two leads, the movie chugs along and is able to hold your interest throughout its entire running time. This is certainly due to the fact that Reiner and company has actually a very intriguing story in their hands. The questions of morality in a world where orders are to be followed is examined with great lengths, and certainly places the audience on the spot regarding when does the military go too far regarding the application of their own code of conduct. However, who ultimately is responsible for the death of one man? The man that gave the order or the people that executed the order because that was their duty as soldiers to obey? And if they did their duty, and did what they were told to do, why then are they the ones that are paying for the broken dishes? It’s a very fine line of debate and Aaron Sorkin exploits this into his screenplay with very good results. The movie keeps you glued to your seat despite the two leads and also despite the fact that a good chunk of the movie’s twists (unfortunately) get mailed into the audience way before the actual events take place. This certainly takes a lot of dramatic bite out of those scenes, yet the film still manages to stay afloat because the material is too damn good to be fucked up by anyone, be it the filmmakers or the actors themselves, and also because of the performances of a handful of actors that make it worth watching. Case in point, Jack Nicholson as Col. Jessep. I have to wonder, why is it that Jack boy here is more entertaining and more fun to watch in a supporting role rather than a lead role? Perhaps because he knows that he has limited screen time (though he did ask for a chunk of cash, enough to warrant him a spot in the main credits) that he simply goes for it in every scene and pulls it off with amazing results that boost this film up in the appeal meter. Here’s what an actor of his caliber does: he takes a rather cartoonish and distasteful part and gives it a 3-dimensional depth of a human being that has been there and has fought his everyway through the battlefield. Whenever Col. Nathan Jessep opens his mouth, he immediately draws your attention with his direct, honest, no bullshit attitude. His voice commands authority and respect, and despite his tone of arrogance and a rather “interesting” opinion regarding the treatment of women who outrank you, he can at least prove that he has earned the right to be arrogant with his own bare hands. In short, he’s an old school warrior, and Nicholson deservingly gives him that treatment and pulls it off without breaking a sweat. Despite the obviously scripted grand finale between Nicholson’s Jessep and Cruise’s Kaffee, Nicholson simply demolishes Cruise in the acting department; in fact, he pretty much demolishes everyone in the damn film. Back when he did Gene O’Neil in Warren Beatty’s Reds, Nicholson went face to face with Beatty and Diane Keaton and almost ate them for lunch; I say almost because suffice to say all three were thoroughly brilliant. Here, nobody is in the same league as Jack boy, and he walks away with the entire film in only three scenes time. Now THAT is an actor ladies and gentleman!

The rest of the cast acquits itself very nicely, with Kevin Bacon as prosecutor Capt. Ross, who manages to tread the very dangerous water as Kaffee’s friend and eventual foe in the courtroom. Another standout has to be Wolfgang Bodison as Lance Cpl. Dawson; consider that Bodison originally worked as a location scout in the film and managed to get the part because Director Reiner actually thought he looked like a Marine, yet Bodison embodies the troubled soul of Dawson perfectly, and was really a treat to watch, especially against Cruise when he goes head to head with him. Kiefer Sutherland was his usual eerie self as Kendrick, a character who has quite a fixation regarding the military and the Bible. And the late character actor JT Walsh brings his usual quality of work as Lt. Col Markinson, himself a troubled soul who knows the truth about what happened, and decides to also take matters into his own hands against the person he thinks is responsible for the whole ordeal.

A lot has been discussed about the characters and the actors that embodied them, but not that much on the production, mainly because Reiner wanted it that way; he knew that this was the best approach to make this film work. However, it just seems that Reiner let his actors do the whole work for him and all he did was sit down and watch. I cannot blame him completely for this because the screenplay calls for very ordinary settings (it’s based on a play for Christ’s sake) and the dramatic punch line lies in the dialogue (even if at times it comes off rather stupid). However, I wish he could’ve tightened things up a bit, and do a lot more editing work in order to cut off those “giveaway’ scenes in order to scale up the tension even more and also work more closely with his 2 main leads in order to cut the bullshit and actually act and give their characters at least a wee bit touch of humanity.

All in all, it’s a very good film but with one too many flaws to consider it a great film, especially one worthy of a Best Picture Nomination, considering that there were a couple more superior films that year that had more merit towards the nod than this film ever had. Nevertheless, it’s a crowd pleaser and surely a recommended Friday night rental. Despite the film’s success, Rob Reiner soon went into a creative and commercial decline that he was not able to recover from, and in hindsight, it should not have been hard to see it coming after this movie. 3.5-5

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