Picks and Pans Review: A Few Good Men

updated 12/14/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/14/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

Tom Cruise, Jack Nicholson, Demi Moore, Kevin Bacon, Wolfgang Bodison

A somber, studiedly intense drama that is absorbing despite its total predictability, this story of two young Marines court-martialed for their involvement in the death of a buddy at the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, is a study in conflict. There is loyalty vs. integrity, justice vs. expediency, sexism vs. reality and, most obviously, Nicholson, who plays the Marines' commander, vs. the memory of Humphrey Bogart in The Caine Mutiny.

This is, in fact, The Caine Mutiny without ball bearings, with the whole film leading up to a wrenching courtroom confrontation between Cruise, as the defense lawyer for the two accused Marines, and Nicholson, squinting and growling at all-ahead-histrionic speed as he comes perilously close to doing a Jack Nicholson imitation.

Moore, meanwhile, mugs, gestures and overstates every line so loudly you feel like slapping her between two pieces of rye bread with a slice of Swiss cheese and some mustard. By contrast, Cruise seems a model of subtlety, even though he frolics around in his most boyish, eager-to-please mode as a playboy Navy lawyer best known for his reliance on plea bargains until Moore, a self-righteous lawyer in the Navy Judge Advocate General's office, talks him into going into the courtroom to try the Marines' case.

The film, adapted by Aaron Sorkin from his own play, is oddly humorless for a Rob Reiner project, though the director does force-feed some light moments through good-ol'-boy softball scenes. The focus inevitably keeps going back, though, to a meandering, almost derisive view of the Marines' storied loyalty to their Corps. (Even the murder itself turns out to have been an overreaction to the victim's having gone outside the Marine chain of command to make a complaint.)

A final courtroom twist depends heavily on a series of implausibilities. For one thing, Sorkin, who has never served in the military, underestimates the resoucefulness of the kind of career officer played by Nicholson. The result is a lot of implicit Marine-bashing that is less persuasive for being so unknowing and so lacking in courage and forthrightness.

Any admirer of the Marine Corps would be better off watching John Wayne in Sands of Iwo Jima. Anyone seriously interested in this kind of trial should read Robert Sherrill's book Military Justice Is to Justice as Military Music Is to Music. Fans of star vehicles, however, can go along for an enjoyable, Tom vs. Jack ride. (R)

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