Like Last Action Hero, five writers share in the blame. The first, and least culpable, is John Grisham, who wrote the novel that spent just under a year on the New York Times hardcover bestseller list. Playwright David Rabe (Streamers), journeyman screenwriter David Rayfiel (Three Days of the Condor), and Robert Towne (Chinatown) are credited for their work on-screen. Dan Pyne (Pacific Heights) contributed to a draft of the script but was not credited. Film may be a collaborative medium, but the surest sign of trouble in the land of make-believe is still a screenplay penned by more than one author. Too many cooks, and all that. In this case the broth is allowed to simmer too long. Most of the flavor gets boiled right out of it.
A strong director, a man or woman with vision, might have been able to spice things up a bit. Alas, The Firm is saddled with Sydney Pollack, whose last directorial outing was a similarly underachieving mishmash, Havana (which was also co-written by Rayfiel). The two films suggest a plunging career trajectory. The days when Pollack was capable of making pictures like Tootsie and Out of Africa are behind him.
Tom Cruise gives it the old college try as Mitch McDeere, a Harvard Law School hotshot who graduates among the top five in his class. Not the top five percent, mind you, the top five. If you had trouble believing Cruise as a Navy lawyer in A Few Good Men, try picturing him as an Ivy Leaguer who forgoes a career with a powerful firm in Washington or on Wall Street in order to accept a position with a small but amazingly well-to-do office in Memphis. In the wake of The Color of Money, Born on the Fourth of July, and Rain Man, it looked as though Cruise had defied the odds and made the transition from matinee idol to actor. His performances in Far and Away, A Few Good Men, and The Firm are cause to reconsider.
The partners at Bendini, Lambert, and Locke set McDeere up in a dream home, lease him a Mercedes (it was a BMW in the novel. Arbitrary switch or corporate promo? You be the judge), pay off his student loans, and offer him a salary that tops his next-best offer by twenty percent. What's the catch? The firm specializes in laundering money for the Mafia. And they have a rather intimidating personnel record A the only lawyers who have left the firm's employ prior to McDeere's arrival have not done so without a death certificate. It's a sort of roach motel for high-flying tax attorneys. They check in but they never check out.
Being the quick study that he is, it doesn't take Mitch long to realize something's up, especially after two FBI agents visit him at a diner late one night and drop a few cryptic hints. The Firm is one of those movies A the FBI guys can't just come out and tell McDeere, and by extension the viewing audience, what's going on. That would be too easy. Yet someone has to advance the action. So they offer just enough info to pique McDeere's curiosity before they split. They should have worn signs reading "Thinly-veiled plot device." The scene is one of many that feel totally contrived. Ed Harris is his usual tough-guy self as a G-man with a shaved head; you just know Cruise is going to make a fool of him somehow before the movie's over.
McDeere quickly earns the approval of designated mentor Avery Tolar, a cynical partner at the firm. Gene Hackman plays Tolar with his customary virtuosity. Hackman's presence is almost detrimental; the vaunted character actor is so slick that Cruise and costar Jeanne Tripplehorn suffer by comparison. You can't help thinking it would have been a much better movie if there had been more Hackman and less Cruise. Who cares if that's not the way Grisham wrote it? This is no time to worry about faithfulness to the novel.
So Tolar takes McDeere under his wing; the newcomer suspects his predecessors were victims of foul play; a Mafia connection is established; the FBI and the firm both tighten the screws. Will McDeere's ambition cost him his career or even his life? Will he turn government informant? Will the Mafia get to him? Will Tolar steal McDeere's wife? Will Mrs. McDeere ever forgive her husband for a little indiscretion that occurred while he was on an overnight business trip to the Cayman Islands? Will McDeere find a way to spring his incarcerated brother? Can The Firm avoid unfavorable comparisons to Presumed Innocent?
In its defense, The Firm is blessed with a number of fine performances from its supporting players. Gary Busey as a low-rent private investigator, Holly Hunter as his gum-chewing receptionist, and Wilford Brimley as the law firm's security chief all shine. And much like the movie as a whole, Cruise is not terrible. Both he and the film struggle through their little credibility gaps but manage to be sporadically engaging.
In fact, The Firm has a chance to be remembered for something very valuable, something that will have a positive lasting effect on the advancement of the American cinema: the end of the writing-directing tandem of Rayfiel-Pollack.