There are more than a few good actors in A Few Good Men . And yet the all-star cast is only one of the film’s redeeming qualities. There is a complex storyline and, although it deals with tough subjects, this Rob Reiner courtroom picture is just fun to watch.
The storyline kicks off when naval officer and lawyer Daniel Kafee (Tom Cruise) is given the frustrating case of two Marine cadets charged with the murder of their fellow soldier, William Santiago, who had requested a transfer off their base on Guantanamo Bay.
Unfortunately for the lazy lawyer, while he and his longtime friend and fellow lawyer Jack Ross (Kevin Bacon) think the case is open-and-shut (plead guilty for involuntary manslaughter) both clients (James Marshall and Wolfgang Bodison) refuse to do so. For they want to go through with a trial in order to accuse their superior officer Lt. Kendrick (Kiefer Sutherland) of ordering a “Code Red” (an order to assault a fellow cadet issued by a superior).
Kaffee goes through with this destined-to-fail court trial along with faithful friend Sam Weinburg (Kevin Pollak) and the much-more-focused lawyer JoAnne Galloway (Demi Moore) as the team for the defense, while Jack Ross is the attorney for the prosecution.
In providing this defense, Kaffee takes just about every risk in the book, and throughout the trial he grows from the laid-back Lieutenant who would rather play baseball than win a case, to a serious lawyer who breaks down witness after witness and proves that the two cadets acted on an order from their sergeant, with none of them knowing that toxins on the rag they used to gag Santiago would kill him.
As Kaffee matures, he becomes more and more passionate about proving that Kendrick and his superior, Col. Nathan Jessup (Jack Nicholson), a very serious marine colonel with a sadistic manner, are to blame for ordered the Code Red on Santiago and then trying to cover their tracks., A main character growing dramatically in pursuit of justice can be a cliché, but A Few Good Men does this cliché impressively, something else that makes the film fun to watch.
Even people who haven’t seen the movie are probably familiar with the final confrontation between Cruise’s Kaffee and Nicholson’s unforgettable Jessup (nominated for a best supporting actor Oscar), most specifically for Nicholson’s line “you can’t handle the truth!” Though the film features many great scenes (including the drunken Kaffee ranting about how the team is destined to lose or the two accused soldiers refusing to plead guilty due to their duty as marines) the five minutes of dialogue where Kaffee tugs the truth out of the straight-toothed, red-faced Colonel is the highlight of the film. The intensity when Jessup breaks under the heavy pressure, and not only loudly confesses to ordering the Code Red, but attempts to jump out of the witness booth and strangle Kaffee, cursing the day he was born, contrasts so heavily with his seemingly authoritative persona that the scene borders on comedy.
While I love the story, cast and screenplay, I must say that the movie didn’t take any risks, for better or for worse. They used a cast full of stars, an unoriginal premise and plot points that you could find in many other movies. While this playing-it-safe method paid off, making A Few Good Men enjoyable to watch, a less-clichéd story can be found in just about any other courtroom drama.
As for the acting, someone must have called up every single big-name actor in Hollywood and said ‘hey, come be in this movie.’ From Cruise’s likable attorney, to the cold, condescending Kendrick (Sutherland) to Kaffee’s fellow lawyer (Moore), Reiner made it more than clear that he wanted nothing less than the best actors in his film. But it’s Nicholson, one of the most acclaimed actors of all time, who dominates the screen whenever he’s on it.
With a gun-in-mouth suicide, a violent opening sequence, and pretty heavy swearing, this film earned an R rating. However, I think that for any teen who loves movies should see this film (whenever their parents see fit).
Dad Replies: A toned-down version of the film (sans cuss words) plays on cable every few hours, so no one of any age should have to miss what I agree is a taught and enjoyable courtroom drama with a military twist (one that ignited the JAG jag and other imitators). I agree with Ben that the all-star cast delivered the goods, although most of the other big names (Bacon, Sutherland, Moore) kind of faded into the background whenever Cruise and/or Nicholson were on the screen. Like My Cousin Vinny, this film is less a “who-done-it” than a “can-he-prove-it” court battle, which gives the final confrontation between Cruise and Nicholson its dramatic punch, even for those who have seen the scene repeated and imitated endless times.