Beyond Cruise Control

Whether he's doing the bugaloo in his underwear, hanging around the pool hall with Paul Newman, or playing hero in airplanes and race cars, Tom Cruise remains Hollywood's most insubstantial matinee idol -- cute as a bug, light as a feather. That's right: the Troy Donahue of his time. In Rob Reiner's A Few Good Men Cruise has found a role that, at the outset, suits him as well as the self-absorbed younger brother in Rain Man: Here he's a spineless, second-generation Navy lawyer who would rather play softball than actually try a case, a screw-off who's wisecracking and plea-bargaining away the time until his discharge back into civilian preppydom.

Evidently no idealist, playwright-turned-screenwriter Aaron Sorkin has revamped his Broadway hit as a star vehicle for Cruise's customary screen persona -- the callow youth who's forced to face a crisis and grow up. In the movie version, boy lawyer Danny Kaffee lives in the huge shadow of a dead but daunting father (the former U.S. Attorney General, no less), and when he takes a tough murder case to military court he suddenly finds his own identity. It's the most hackneyed and unconvincing kind of soap opera and not nearly as amusing as watching Cruise knock out palookas three times his size and singlehandedly win the West in the awful Far and Away.

Luckily, A Few Good Men brings other actors and other issues into play. Sorkin's reconstituted courtroom drama pays some timely attention to thorny questions about power, duty, and military justice first raised in The Caine Mutiny and The Andersonville Trial, and the supporting players -- including Jack Nicholson and surprisingly effective Demi Moore -- are so enjoyable to watch that these two-and-a-half hours sail by like a fast gunboat.

At the isolated U.S. Naval base in Guantanamo, Cuba, two Marine enlisted men are accused of killing the platoon snitch amid a traditional but unauthorized act of internal discipline called a "Code Red." Because the brass want the case to vanish, they recruit the distracted Kaffee, a year out of Harvard Law, to arrange one of his quick plea bargains. Enter co-counsel Lt. Cmdr. Joanne Galloway (Moore), who's as passionate about the law as Danny is listless, to start turning over stones, quietly investigating high-ranking officers, demanding that the defendants (Wolfgang Bodison and James Marshall) get their day in a Washington D.C. courtroom.

If the commercially astute Reiner (Stand by Me, Misery) builds a major weakness into A Few Good Men, it's tht every conflict known to drama shows up on your radar long before it happens. The accused killers, all spit-and-polish and jarhead code, finally protest their innocence. Moore goads Cruise to action. A key witness commits suicide on the eve of testifying. The whole shebang points forever toward a climactic clash between the uncertain Kaffee and Nicholson's hard-as-nails Marine colonel, Nathan Jessep -- a contemporary Captain Queeg whose sharp intelligence, patriotism and huge ego are about to land him a top spot in the U.S. intelligence establishment. Care to speculate about the verdict in the court-martial? Simply said, any military school sophomore could divine Sorkin's creaky plot.

But that doesn't diminish the tension one bit. Kevin Bacon puts in a fine, subtle performance as the smart young prosecutor, and Kiefer Sutherland, shaved clean and enflamed by rigid belief, curdles the blood as a gung ho lieutenant under Nicholson's command in Cuba. For the most part, the acting is sensational here, and Sorkin's pithy dialogue soars. Otherwise, the whole film is as precise and predictable as a fine watch -- or a rank of drilling Marines -- and in that lies its deepest pleasures.

What doesn't work is the added-on notion that Cruise's Kaffee has grown up, defined himself as an adult, and broken his dominant father's grip: Cruise just doesn't have the weight to pull this crashing cliche off with anything like originality. Even after Danny's shed Daddy's ghost, and Moore has inspired him to become some kind of legal top gun, you still feel like telling him to go clean up his room.

Screenplay by Aaron Sorkin, based on his play. Directed by Rob Reiner. With Tom Cruise, Jack Nicholson, Demi Moore, Kiefer Sutherland and Kevin Bacon.



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