“The Firm” is a smooth adaptation of John Grisham’s giant bestseller that is destined to be one of the summer’s strong audience pleasers. Tom Cruise’s hotshot lawyer bent on toppling his corrupt bosses could be a brother to his character in “A Few Good Men,” and grosses for this easily digestible popcorn picture should approach, if probably not equal, those of the actor’s winter hit.
The millions of readers who made Grisham’s novel the best-selling book of 1991 are in for a few extra plot twists in the final third of the story, as director Sydney Pollack and his trio of high-powered screenwriters have added some dramatic and ethical complexity to this yarn about a young man caught between the rock of his conspiratorial law firm and the hard place of government pressure to expose his employers’ criminal practices.
The story is of the artificial, instantly disposable variety that doesn’t warrant much serious discussion or provoke thought afterward, but it is enacted with sufficient conviction by everyone before and behind the camera that it provides the kind of absorbing, pulpy, old-fashioned movie experience that mainstream viewers appreciate on the infrequent occasions that one is offered to them.
Cruise portrays Mitch McDeere, a much-sought-after Harvard grad who shuns enticing entreaties from big city law offices in favor of a fat offer from a small Memphis concern that promotes itself as a family.
Mitch’s teacher wife Abby (Jeanne Tripplehorn) smells a rat from the outset, since the firm imposes unusually rigid codes of personal behavior, but Mitch jumps in with the enthusiasm of a puppy, working all hours, currying favor with the boss (Hal Holbrook) and lunching with self-appointed mentor Avery Tolar (Gene Hackman).
After two of the firm’s attorneys die in a mysterious boating accident, Mitch and Avery head to the Cayman Islands to investigate, and a chance encounter with a beautiful woman on the beach leads Mitch to a night of indiscretion despite a marriage that seems quite ideal.
Another skeleton in Mitch’s closet is his brother Ray (David Strathairn), a convict doing time for manslaughter.
When Mitch begins to suspect that the firm could be responsible for the deaths of four of its employees over the years, Ray puts his brother on to private eye Eddie Lomax (Gary Busey), who is promptly murdered by two firm hitmen for sticking his nose in the wrong places.
When Mitch is informed by the Justice Dept. that not only is the firm under investigation, but that no one has ever left its employ alive, the young man finds himself in a vise that squeezes him tight from then on.
It is in the working out of this dilemma that Grisham’s tale has been altered , and the ambitious, go-getting nature of the main character has been shaded with an almost impossibly clever scheme to have his cake and eat it too while remaining within the law. His wife has also been given an added mission that creates some extra suspense and pathos.
Rebounding from his biggest career flop with “Havana,” Sydney Pollack has done an ultra-pro job in giving spit and polish to this star-driven, sure-fire commercial project. Close attention has been paid to story structure, as the narrative is advanced in every sequence, and types of scenes are alternated carefully.
A few Hitchcockian touches are inserted in the late going, and the film takes on a somewhat different feel at that point as Pollack begins cross-cutting among three different sets of action.
The Tyrone Power of his generation, Cruise hits notes of determination, all-nighter energy and gradually developing standards and smarts that he has hit before, particularly in most recent role, but one couldn’t imagine anyone better for this sort of star turn except for Robert Redford 25 years ago.
At times uncannily resembling Genevieve Bujold, Tripplehorn gets to do a bit more than hold down the home front and express doubt and fury at her husband’s long hours. Hackman (who is unbilled in paid advertising for the picture, although credited onscreen) turns in another sterling performance as a top lawyer with unexpected depths of pain and remorse.
Supporting cast is stellar indeed. Most indelible etchings are offered by Strathairn as Cruise’s insightful brother; Holly Hunter as Busey’s tartish, resourceful secretary; Busey himself as an engagingly down-home detective; Ed Harris, shaven bald to play a tough, frequently frustrated FBI agent; and Wilford Brimley as the ruthless enforcer on the firm’s staff.
All technical hands have contributed to the unimpeachable Hollywood veneer of the package, although the percussive, non-orchestral score by Dave Grusin proves effectively different at times and intrusive at others.