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ĎA Few Good Mení

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
December 11, 1992


Rob Reiner
Tom Cruise;
Jack Nicholson;
Demi Moore;
Kevin Bacon;
Kiefer Sutherland;
Kevin Pollak;
James Marshall;
J.T. Walsh;
Christopher Guest;
Matt Craven;
Wolfgang Bodison;
Cuba Gooding Jr.
Under 17 restricted

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Don't think for a minute that "A Few Good Men" is anything other than formula. But this military courtroom drama doesn't follow Hollywood convention. It grabs it by the shirt front and orders it around, with bracing, spit-and-polish performances from Jack Nicholson, Tom Cruise, Demi Moore and others.

Expanded successfully by Aaron Sorkin from his play, "Men" is full of loaded, manly moments, great clashes of will and excellent buzz cuts. Director Rob Reiner has a tremendous ability to elicit great performances. Not only does he give the headliners room to maneuver, he enlists able-bodied support from Kevin Bacon, Wolfgang Bodison, James Marshall and others.

At the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, two young Marines are accused of a reprisal murder. The victim, an unpopular Latino soldier, had threatened to report one of the alleged killers for illegally firing a gun. The official cause of death is "lactic acidosis," a severe reaction of the lungs as the apparent result of a poisoned rag stuffed into his mouth.

Convinced of murkier play than this cut-and-dried case implies, qualified military attorney Moore volunteers to represent the defense. But the top brass passes her over for bratty Navy lawyer Cruise, who has no courtroom experience. To add insult to injury, Moore (with Kevin Pollak) is ordered to assist the novice hot dog.

While Moore and Cruise spar, their investigation encounters daunting resistance from base commander Nicholson and tight-lipped subordinates J. T. Walsh, Kiefer Sutherland and prosecutor Bacon. It doesn't help matters that honor-bound defendants Bodison and Marshall demand to be tried rather than take an easy sentence. Cruise, Moore and Pollak prepare for an intimidating trial, their backs against the wall.

The formulaic elements line up one behind the other, from "Top Gun"-style contentiousness between Cruise and Moore to the surprise witness showing up in the nick of time (although there's an interesting twist on that). But "Men" is an entertainment to be seen and appreciated in momentum. As such, it is constantly gripping, the threat of that trial constantly in the air.

In the thankless role of Disapproving Woman (and the one who must surrender the romantic flag first), Moore delivers solidly. As Cruise's adversary and old friend, underrated Bacon takes his supporting role further than tradition allows. Of course, there's only one match-up that counts: the final encounter between lawyer Cruise and witness Nicholson. As a testosteronal David, Cruise has basically replayed this role again and again. He takes charge of his central role admirably. But as the scowling Goliath, his lips contorted thinner than the blade of a Marine sword, Nicholson crushes all opposition. He's all controlled fury, the living consequence of America's international show of might. He puts three-dimensional presence into this archetypal role. Suddenly you realize who really should have been saying "The horror, the horror" in "Apocalypse Now."

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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