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A Few Good Men Print E-mail
Saturday, 01 March 2008
ImageIt's easy to understand why so many movie directors eventually get around to doing a courtroom drama. The issues are generally clear, the outcome is not always guessable, the structure of a trial permits as many vivid characters as you like, and trials are inherently dramatic. If the trial is also a MILITARY hearing, everything is heightened partly because of the command structure, partly because the issues become, if anything, even clearer.

So it's hardly any wonder why Rob Reiner would have been drawn so strongly to Aaron Sorkin's hit play, “A Few Good Men,” despite a certain mechanical quality to the plotting. Reiner's movie version may even be stronger than the play because of a sizzling performanc by Jack Nicholson as a tough, career-minded marine Colonel, as well as highly engaging star turns by Tom Cruise and Demi Moore. Photographed by Robert Richardson in clear, handsomely-composed wide screen, the movie never feels confined to the courtroom. Sorkin, who adapted his own play, has effectively "opened it up" as well.

Marine Cpl. Dawson (Wolfgang Bodison) and Pvt. Downey (Marshall) have been accused of murder in the death of another Marine recruit at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. Very military, very ambitious and very idealistic Lt. Cmdr. JoAnne Galloway (Moore) wants to defend the young men since she's convinced they acted on a "Code Red" — an unsanctioned but covertly approved disciplinary action carried out by members of a military group against one of their number who's transgressed somehow. “Gitmo” has been notorious for the number of Code Reds happening there. Lt. Jg. Daniel Kaffee (Tom Cruise), however, is put in charge of the case; he thinks at first that it's because he's a sharp lawyer (which he is), but it's really because the Navy expects him to plea-bargain the two without a trial at all.
But Galloway's honesty, and scornful attitude toward him, and the accused Dawson's determination to defend his honor in court, lead to the trial, and an eventual showdown with Guantanamo base commander Col. Nathan R. Jessep (Nicholson), a tough, all-Marine career officer.

The courtroom scenes are exciting and suspenseful, with everyone at top form (though Moore's best scenes are outside the court). Prosecuting attorney Capt. Jack Ross is played by Kevin Bacon, in a sharp, focused performance of an interesting role: he doesn't believe that the men are guilty, but he is representing the U.S. government, and it has a case. Ross and Daniel are long-time friends, and trade information outside court, but are strong opponents within it. Bacon shines in all his scenes.

So does Kiefer Sutherland as an arrogant, Bible-thumping Marine lieutenant at Guantanamo who may have ordered the two accused men to carry out the Code Red. Sutherland is so uptight as to verge on the prissy, not because he's religious and a Marine, but because he's so annoyingly smug about it. He dismisses the death of the young man by saying he had it coming "because he had no code, he had no honor, and God was watching." J.D. Walsh is also fine as Jessep's second in command who feels that his inaction doomed the dead boy; Walsh creates a Marine as tough as any others in the film, but a lot more humane. We’re reminded again that Walsh’s too-early death was a great loss to movies.

Cruise and Moore are terrific as the two lockhorn leading lawyers in the case, she bedeviling and belittling him into actually becoming the outstanding lawyer she suspects him to be. Sorkin has done something very rare: he's created roles that have to be played by a man and a woman, but left out all but the faintest whiff of romance between them — yet also not made romance between them impossible (they're both available). Cruise is a disciplined actor, but Kaffee is a loose, undisciplined man; the tension between actor and role pays continual dividends. Cruise is always good as arrogant, brilliant snots who not only learn wiser over the course of the story, but whose wising-up process is a main part of the story. Moore is witty, intelligent and intense as the ambitious military lawyer; JoAnne is the guiding force behind much of what Daniel accomplishes. Too bad Moore is so rarely seen these days.

But the standout performance is by Jack Nicholson, who really has only three scenes—which still landed him a supporting actor Oscar nomination. His Col. Jessep is a hell of a military man, a top-notch warrior who's made a common military mistake: he’s allowed his ambitions to slowly corrupt his honesty without ever being aware that this has happened. He's gone from doing the right thing to the assumption that whatever he does is the right thing, because he’s doing it. And that's a dangerous attitude for a man in a position of such power to have.

The confrontation between Jessep and Kaffee, though brief, is the highlight of the movie, an exciting display of brilliant, bravura acting by Nicholson. Cruise's character is simply not as showy, but he holds his own against Nicholson's fire, which probably wasn’t easy to do.

James Marshall, as the nearly dimwitted Downey, is nearly unrecognizable, and has an almost totally passive role; he's fine in it, but there's not a lot for him to really do. Wolfgang Bodison, previously Rob Reiner’s assistant, made his acting debut here, and he's so good he’s been a busy actor ever since. Dawson clearly has searched for meaning in his life, and has found it in "Unit, Corps, God and Country" — and that's now endangered.

This Blu-Ray disc has only a few extras, but two of them are outstanding. There’s a lengthy featurette on the making of the movie, “Code of Conduct, featuring a boyish-looking Aaron Sorkin talking about his sudden rise from playwright to screenwriter. Others appearing include Rob Reiner, Noah Wylie, Kevins Bacon and Pollak, James Marshall, Reiner’s “Spinal Tap” pal Christopher Guest, Wolfgang Bodison, and Cruise and Moore, in interviews shot back in 1992. Sorkin and Reiner continue discussing the adaptation of the hit play into the hit movie in a shorter featurette, “A Few Good Men: from Stage to Screen.” Reiner makes the changes from play to film very clear and understandable; that weak “sudden revelation” bit was new to the film—but the idea it replaced (airline luggage tags) seems just as artificial and familiar. Reiner also provides a commentary track, but it’s of little interest.

You’d expect that a courtroom drama—which are usually just about as engrossing when presented as a radio show—wouldn’t offer much to be boosted by high definition presentation. That’s not the case here, though. Reiner’s camera is mobile, the opening up scenes—including episodes at Guantanamo (played by the So. California coast)—are striking, rich in detail. The rainy scene here, back in D.C., is actually undercut by high definition—it’s a little too easy to tell that the rain is falling only near the camera. And the one special effects shot, a long view of the Guantanamo port, is revealed as a standard matte painting—this was prior to CG background shots.

In addition to Nicholson’s acting nominations, “A Few Good Men” received Oscar nominations for best film, best sound and best editing; it didn’t win.

The biggest weakness in "A Few Good Men" is the understory of Kaffee’s wising up. Kaffee's late father was a famous attorney general of the United States; his lack of ambition as a lawyer is heavily attributed to his growing up in his father's shadow. This isn't exactly new stuff, but Reiner and Sorkin treat it as if they've uncovered a previously hidden Universal Truth. When we should be deeply involved in the case itself, and how the working-out of the case gives Kaffee the sense of purpose he's lacked until now, Kaffee's past is continually brought up. It expands Cruise's role, but the drama of the film suffers.

The plot is also somewhat pat; for example, there's a suicide, which we could predict because it comes at a point where our heroes’ case needed some complications. Some questions are not settled, such as whether id the dead man at Guantanamo suffer from a heart condition; this is strongly suggested, then just dropped. Also, that Kaffee has a Sudden Revelation (upon looking at his own closet) is a pretty cheap and familiar mystery movie trope.

But the movie does set up a very important idea about trial lawyers, clearly dramatizing it. Kaffee has plea- bargained all his cases until now because he didn't want to face the prospect of losing. When Dawson angrily asks him, "do you think we're right?", Kaffee responds, "I think you'll lose" — which is not an answer to the question at all.

The movie pivots on contrasts between the best and worst of the military, and even suggests that they may be the same thing. The military is, like it or not, necessary — but the kind of men who want to serve in the military are not always those who should. "A Few Good Men" does not trash the Marines; if anything, it strongly supports them — but does add that absolutely necessary "but:" the military has to have limits imposed from without.

This is an outstanding production all the way around, though not quite an outstanding movie, mostly because of the familiar elements of the subplot and that standard mystery sudden-revelation gambit. But it's a very worthwhile movie—and except for “The American President,” just about the last one in Rob Reiner’s directing career. This was a substantial hit, leading many to eagerly look forward to his next movie, which was the dismal “North.” “Ghosts of Mississippi,” “The Story of Us,” “Alex & Emma,” “Rumor Has It,” “The Bucket List”—what director Rob Reiner needs is a few good scripts.

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