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‘The Firm’ (R)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
June 30, 1993

Certain that the paper chamber is locked and loaded, Holly Hunter presses "print." She chews an acrylic nail fearfully. There's a click, followed by a blinding flash. ...

Sydney Pollack attempts the first-ever action Xerox caper in "The Firm," a techno-thriller for those who love the smell of toner in the morning. He's probably done about as well as can be expected with the sedentary doings in John Grisham's bestseller -- still essentially a paper chase, despite all the tinkering by screenwriters David Rabe, Robert Towne and David Rayfiel.

For the first 15/16ths of the yarn, Tom Cruise, playing a lawyer at a crooked firm, is in danger principally from paper cuts. Jurisprudence is a risky business even for Cruise, who did pull it off as the Navy lawyer in "A Few Good Men." But that film had action, confrontations and a grand cause. "The Firm," on the other hand, is an office-bound saga of careerism and greed.

The movie, like the book, begins with the seduction of Mitch McDeere (Cruise) by the firm of Bendini, Lambert Locke, a small but flush Memphis partnership that makes the young Harvard Law graduate the proverbial offer he can't refuse: a six-figure salary, a low-interest mortgage, a Mercedes and a check to pay off his student loans. Though courted by fancier big-city houses, Mitch succumbs not only to the promised riches but to the show of family by the Memphis firm.

They're part of a family, all right -- the Gambino family.

Mitch has made a pact with the Devil, and he realizes it too late. He is one doomed yuppie if he cannot outsmart the forces arrayed against him: his colleagues, the mob and, on the other side, the FBI. In the process, he nearly loses his wife, Abby (Jeanne Tripplehorn), a plucky schoolteacher whom he betrays while on business at the firm's digs in the Cayman Islands.

Even his infidelity was masterminded by the Chicago crime lords who call the shots at Bendini, Lambert & Locke. The firm's security chief (grain spokesman Wilford Brimley), a mob henchman in actuality, set him up and took photos to ensure his loyalty when it seemed Mitch was looking for a way out. Fearing that she will see the dirty pictures, Mitch confesses to Abby, who is steamed, but she's there in the end to help.

This puts Mitch in a uniquely unheroic position for a movie hero -- he's in Memphis manning the phones and sending computer messages while Abby and his secretary, Tammy (Hunter), are doing the dangerous work in the Caymans. Yes, they're down there Xeroxing the files that the firm has stashed in its condo.

Fans of the novel may be disappointed to find Tammy's major role whittled down almost to nothing, doubtless to conform to Hollywood notions of propriety. Here the heroic little hillbilly's work is given over to Abby, who goes to the island snuggery at the invitation of her husband's mentor, Avery (Gene Hackman). A fairly odious womanizer in the book, Avery here becomes a likable guy gone wrong and looking for love.

Tripplehorn has more chemistry with Hackman than she does with Cruise. This is more a tribute to Hackman than to the mild-mannered actress, who has all the sass of Sandra Day O'Connor. For his part, Cruise doesn't really come into his own until the last bravado sequence.

Primarily, the supporting cast drives the movie -- inevitably a bad sign. Aside from Hunter and Hackman, there's the chrome-domed Ed Harris in a pithy turn as the FBI agent charged with busting the firm and David Strathairn in a sweetly powerful one as Mitch's jailed older brother. Gary Busey also punches up the pace as a seedy Memphis gumshoe with only a couple of scenes -- one of them extremely violent. Which brings us to an inescapable truth vis-a-vis thrillers, action adventures and mysteries: Audiences respond to clear and present endangerment.

Cruise never really seems to be threatened, even when chased by a pair of strangely blase thugs and Brimley, scary old Mr. Oats. A long, rather uneventful chase scene does allow Cruise to beat the bejesus out of a malfeasant and perhaps salvage some of his manly ego. Not that anyone much cares what happens to yuppies anymore -- unless they're offered a million dollars to sleep with Robert Redford.

"The Firm" is nowhere near as disastrous as "Havana," Pollack's last film, which suffered from Redford's somnolence. Pollack makes a solid job of it, as does Cruise. But solid isn't enough when it comes to thrillers -- or courtroom dramas, for that matter. Solid is great when it comes to office furniture.

"The Firm" is rated R for violence and sexual situations.

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