The Firm (1993 USA)

The-Firm-1993-tom-cruise-27898687-500-336An early shooting script for this ended with Mitchell McDeere (Tom Cruise) blowing away all the partners in a restaurant with an AK-47. Thank goodness they didn’t run with that idea. It made me appreciate the re-write by David Rayfiel and Robert Towne. Moving on…in the early 1990’s, movies based on lawyers and law were the fashion, so it’s no surprise that many of John Grisham’s books were adapted onto the big screen during this time. And I imagine that dude was totally stoked by all the success and accolades he received.

Mitch McDeere, a poor boy embarrassed by his meager roots, has graduated from Harvard Law fifth in his class. He gets offers from the top law firms in New York and Chicago, yet ultimately opts for a smaller firm stationed in Memphis. His choice is money-minded. He regards money as peace of mind, however later in the film he is less certain than he’s ever been of how flush he’d need to have to be truly at peace. Some films about the law reduce the judiciary elements to the rank of incidental. This one squeezes them for all they’re worth. Without betraying too much of the story, I can say that McDeere is soon enough being blackmailed by both the FBI and the firm’s security chief, grizzled and mild Wilford Brimley, quite compelling in an unusual jaunt as a bad guy putting the squeeze on McDeere.

To protect himself, Mitch has to exercise both mind and body, eluding hit men and outwitting lawyers, to save both his life and his license to practice law. Drawn from the novel by John Grisham, as adapted by three of the most high-priced screenwriters at the time, this star-studded suspense melodrama takes an admirable two and a half hours to work its way through a hair-splitting ethical hodgepodge. By the finale, regardless of McDeere’s gasping expounding during phone calls in the middle of a chase sequence, his plan of action is bewildering. And then there is the one character who never saw two particular killers when she witnessed another character’s death because she was totally enclosed and hidden, which is how she survived, but in a later scene with Mitch, she says she saw the killers and details what they looked like, even the colour of one’s eyes, the one actually being an albino.

gene-hackman-seated-the-firm-1993-jeanne-tripplehorn

It doesn’t seem as far-fetched as it would were the style of the movie not as competent even when the fine points were bleary. Sydney Pollack, usually a solid director, liked to make big, demanding films and he was secure working with huge stars. Whether or not that colours his output with a sugar-coated worthiness, he utilized them as abbreviated exposition. Case in point: One glance at Hal Holbrook as the top dog of the Firm and we sense it’s a suspicious organization. Holbrook almost always plays the ostensibly dignified man with skeletons in his closet. One look at Gene Hackman, as the law partner who becomes Cruise’s coach, and we know he’s an incredibly faulty, yet not such a bad man, as he always is.

As for Tom Cruise, his ludicrously boyish characters appear to trust people too readily, and so it seems authentic when he accepts the Firm’s song-and-dance and inducements. The movie is practically a compilation of great small character performances. Ed Harris, menacing with a shaved head, requires little more than a couple of concise appearances to persuasively disclose the FBI’s case against the Firm, and to divulge its readiness to force a potential witness to undergo impossible duress. There are also rich performances by Gary Busey, as an articulate private eye, and especially by Holly Hunter, as his secretary.

Watching this classy thriller it hit me that law firms have usurped Army platoons as Hollywood’s most enjoyed universal human setting. The law movies have one formidable leg-up: the female characters engage equally in the fray, rather than just cooking, cleaning and writing letters. There are enough convincing people here to give McDeere a genuine environment to inhabit. Pollack would allow a scene to go on until the point was made somewhat more acutely. That would let an actor like Hackman be stunningly compelling in scenes where he delicately authenticates that, in spite of everything, he has a decent soul. A sensitive scene near the climax between Hackman and Tripplehorn is like an advanced course in acting. The parts of The Firm seem better than the whole. And there are some great parts.

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