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ĎA Few Good Mení

By Rita Kempley
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.

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"A Few Good Men" is a brass-buttoned, square-jawed huzzah for military justice that's thankfully free of the messy moralizing of the Vietnam age. An energetic adaptation of the Broadway play, this riveting court-martial drama looks at the eternal conflict between a civilization and the barbarity inherent in its defense. Essentially it is "The Caine Mutiny" in dry dock with Jack Nicholson and Tom Cruise going macho a macho.

Nicholson, as the fanatical CO at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, orders his officers to bring a platoon troublemaker into line through a severe and unsanctioned form of hazing known as a "Code Red." When the man dies during the incident, two young Marines are charged with his murder and flown to Washington to stand trial. In an attempt to dispense with the affair quickly, the Navy assigns a callow buck (Cruise) with a reputation for plea-bargaining to defend the pair. But the Navy hadn't counted on his impassioned co-counsel (Demi Moore), a tough-minded, Tripolicious officer who shames Cruise into trying the case though the evidence points to his clients' guilt.

Behind Cruise's Pepsodent smile and cocky exterior hides his fear of failing his late father, a Navy lawyer noted for his courtroom elan. The young man's blase attitude antagonizes not only the Guantanamo brass but the gung-ho defendants. He has, in fact, far more in common with the victim, who was likewise notorious for his lack of conviction. "I can't believe they let you wear a uniform," observes the lance corporal (impressive non-actor Wolfgang Bodison) who carried out the Code Red with his sidekick (James Marshall).

Shorn adherents of the Marine Corps Code -- "Unit, corps, God, country" -- Bodison and Marshall are all too ready to martyr themselves for their brethren until they finally understand that they will be excommunicated from the brotherhood if they maintain their silence. A murder rap is nothing compared with a dishonorable discharge, and so they admit they were just doing the colonel's bidding. Naturally the brass deny this ever happened, but bit by bit, Moore, Cruise and a third co-counsel (Kevin Pollak) get at the truth.

With little more to go on than sheer bravado, this trio faces an uphill battle against a formidable prosecutor (crisp Kevin Bacon). Never mind that the judge has warned them that they could go down in flames if they call the colonel to the stand and fail to break him in cross-examination. Of course, that would also rob Nicholson of the chance to crack up bigtime, to prove his ball bearings are just as big as Bogart's, Cagney's or Brando's. And boy does he ever.

His neck veins popping and Old Spice oozing out of his pores, Nicholson gives Cruise's top-gun-with-a-briefcase something to test himself against. (Not that you ever really believe Cruise could make Nicholson lose his composure.) But the more entertaining scene takes place in Guantanamo Bay, where Nicholson, chomping a cigar the size of Florida, assails Moore with an ugly speech about the thrills of sex with a woman who outranks you. Moore's lieutenant commander doesn't tear up once. Indeed the actress plows through the film, steady and dignified as a ship's figurehead.

While she and Cruise might be expected to fall in love after their scrappy beginning, playwright Aaron Sorkin avoids at least this cliche. Sorkin is far more concerned about the abuse of power that occurs when the military is effectively isolated from the democracy it serves. Director Rob Reiner has made much of the hero's wrestling match with his famous father's memory, but Reiner actually handles other aspects of the story with more subtlety. Probably because he's got less invested.

Still, "A Few Good Men" is about as understated as a 21-gun salute. It's a grand undertaking that wrangles with the heavy questions that cropped up at Nuremberg and My Lai, questions that deserve and get lots of imposing shots of monuments and not a little swashbuckling from the big stars. What's missing is anything of Reiner himself.

"A Few Good Men" is rated R for profanity.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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