The Trials Of A Top Gun

Rob Reiner, whose commercial instincts are as acute as any director's in Hollywood, will doubtless hit big with A Few Good Men. He's been on a popular roll with "When Harry Met Sally ..." and "Misery." Now, with the all-star arsenal of Tom Cruise, Jack Nicholson and Demi Moore enacting Aaron Sorkin's crowd-pleasing Broadway military courtroom drama, Reiner seems perfectly positioned for a blockbuster. If this guy were a stock, the experts would say, "Buy." And if the industry buzz on "A Few Good Men" is to be trusted, multiple Oscar nominations are a sure thing.

Reiner has in fact mounted a crackling screen version of Sorkin's play: it's impeccably produced, vigorously acted and delivers the emotional fireworks expected of a courtroom showdown. But is that good enough? For the work itself, a grandchild of "The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial," is built entirely out of secondhand goods; it doesn't have a fresh idea in its square-jawed head. Sorkin, who did the screen adaptation, knows where to plant dramatic dynamite, and how to set it off. There just isn't an explosion you don't see coming for a mile.

Cruise plays a familiar type, a brilliant but feckless young navy lawyer, just out of Harvard Law, badly in need of a challenge to make him discover the true grit he's callowly determined to ignore. This charming screw-up, who's been living in the shadow of his late, great attorney father, is assigned to defend two marines charged with the murder of a mistreated enlisted man at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba. He's never tried a case in court, and the military powers that be assure him it's an open-and-shut case: his guys are guilty. Will Cruise take the easy way out and roll over to the establishment? Or, goaded on by Demi Moore, the idealistic member of his defense team, will he get to the murky bottom of the case? Even if it means taking on the mighty, and mightily macho, Colonel Jessep (Jack Nicholson), the Queeg-like top dog at Guantanamo Bay?

The answer is a given, and the mystery of what happened at the base in Cuba proves not to be much of a mystery at all. Sorkin has some fun with Cruise's clever cross-examinations, but his plotting is hardly inspired-evidence falls in and out of the defense team's legal hands with barely credible convenience. The fact that "A Few Good Men" delivers the goods as well as it does is a tribute to Reiner's savvy theatrical instincts, and to a strong cast that includes Kevin Bacon as the prosecutor and Kiefer Sutherland as an odious, hard-line lieutenant. Nicholson doesn't have a lot of screen time, but leaves a huge imprint. He's great fun to watch: playing an enraged bull, he milks every snort, feint and charge to the max. Moore is adequate if unnecessarily glamorous as our hero's conscience-raiser. Cruise, who has to go mano a mano with powerhouse Jack, holds his own with a big, charming star turn. It's marred only by one's awareness of how hard he's working to achieve it. Designed to get the audience rooting for this upper-class underdog, the movie accomplishes its task with military efficiency. But since the deck is stacked and the cards well worn, it hardly seems a victory to cherish.