AS A LAWYER, TOM CRUISE GETS THE MEMPHIS BLUES

Mitch McDeere, the hero of The Firm, is definitely a Toni Cruise kind of guy. He's a smart, hungry Harvard Law School grad whose aspiring Yuppiedom is redeemed by his dirt-poor background, which gives him a slight chip on his shoulder and an outsider's defiance. In other words, he looks as comfortable in a black leather jacket as in a lawyer's suit. The Cruise hero is always on the verge of insufferable cockiness, until life tests his mettle (in the air, on a racetrack, in a courtroom) and he learns that there are higher values than fame or fortune.

This formula, which is wearing a bit thin, works better in Sydney Pollack's spiffy adaptation of John Grisham's best seller than it has in a while, because here it's not the whole show. There's a lot more going on in this convoluted thriller than the spectacle of a handsome lad transcending his callow nature. Pollack treats Cruise as a team player, surrounds him with a smashing team of actors and sustains the suspense for a taut two and a half hours.

McDeere is a bright young man in one whopping jam. Courted by all the big law firms, he accepts an irresistibly cushy offer from the small Memphis firm of Bendini, Lambert & Locke, specialists in tax law. This cozy, familial firm seems too good to be true-and it is. His wife (the sexy, smart Jeanne Tripplehorn) is suspicious from the start, and the mysterious death of two lawyers in a boating accident doesn't help. No one, in fact, has ever left the firm-alive. He soon finds out the reason, when FBI agents inform him that his employers are run by the mob ... and that McDeere will end up in the pen if he doesn't turn over Bendini, Lambert's files to the Feds. But if he cooperates his days are numbered.

Grisham readers may think they know how McDeere gets out of his dire predicament, but Pollack and his three big-name screenwriters-David Rabe, Robert Towne and David Rayfiel-have added a major new twist, clever but not entirely plausible, to the tale. Without giving anything away, let's just say that a firm this paranoid and security conscious would never have such a convenient Achilles heel.

"The Firm" is far from water tight, but if it doesn't quite match Pollack's crackerjack '70s thriller "Three Days of the Condor," it's a classy contender. Gene Hackman adds rich nuances to the role of Avery Tolar, Mitch's duplicitous, self-loathing mentor; Ed Harris is wonderfully short fused as a tough-guy FBI agent who's not as sharp as he'd like to be; Wilford Brimley is cast nicely against type as the firm's head of security, and Gary Busey has great fun with the brief, splashy role of a seedy detective investigating the case. But best of all (so good you want more of them) are Holly Hunter as Busey's gum-popping secretary, who becomes Mitch's secret weapon, and David Strathairn as Mitch's low-life brother, whom he springs from jail as part of his deal with the Feds. A summer genre movie for grown-ups, "The Firm" helps restore faith in Hollywood professionalism.

AS A LAWYER, TOM CRUISE GETS THE MEMPHIS BLUES | News