There’s a lot that’s good in this film, but let’s start with the bad: A Few Good Men is clunky! It’s a visually tedious movie. Rob Reiner’s style is nothing but alternating, unremarkable medium shots and close-ups, which is fine. He gets out of the way of the actors and the screenplay, but has no intuition of how to gracefully elevate the material. The score, meanwhile, has all the nuance of an aluminum baseball bat, thwacking our ear drums rather than texturing the film.
And there’s the screenplay by Aaron Sorkin. Its 138 minutes move briskly, but that’s still a half hour longer than the movie needs to be. The first act is bizarrely structured, with some oddly-timed flashbacks that probably aren’t even necessary. Later, an officer played by J.T. Walsh becomes the story’s most important character for two scenes before abruptly dying; he could easily have been edited out. Perhaps worst of all, Sorkin breaks the most important rule about characters making plans during the climax: If they narrate their plan in advance, it needs to fail or go sideways in some way.
The film suffers a bit in retrospect thanks to Sorkin using (and, frankly, refining) so many of the beats and lines from this script in his many projects in the ensuing 30 years. It’s the old problem of something innovative feeling formulaic after its influence spreads.
But in spite all of those reservations, I absolutely love A Few Good Men. It’s silver screen voodoo, drawing my eyes and ears to the screen and never letting go.
Sorkin’s polysyllabic, allegro screenplay is uncommonly memorable, showy and smart but still delightful. The witty banter is off the charts as clauses and phrases build on top of each other like verbal architecture. It’s also even-keeled in its politics, giving no easy answers on the hyper-rigid Marines culture.
It’s possible that Tom Cruise’s longevity as a movie star, particularly in action-adventure pictures, has made it easy to forget just how electric and dynamic he can be in talky dramas like this. He commands the camera and makes fireworks with every other actor, muscling the film back to watchability whenever the previously-mentioned clunkiness starts to threaten the movie’s momentum.
The film’s legendary courtroom scenes, particularly when Jack Nicholson and Cruise verbally spar, are worthy of the reputation, a breathless fifteen minutes of swaggering and posturing and cathartic gotcha-payoffs. There’s maybe a bit too much shouting, but that’s part of the fun.
As uneven and, yes, clunky as a Few Good Men is, it is, above all, a satisfying film. And at the end of the day, that trumps everything else.
- Review Project: 2009 Top 100
Exceptionally Good (7/8)
Note: This review was originally published elsewhere. Please excuse brevity or inconsistencies in style. If you have questions or feedback, please leave a comment or contact me.