A Few Good Men (1992) is a legal drama film based on a stage play written by renowned scriptwriter Aaron Sorkin who is best known for works such as The West Wing (1999-2006) and The Social Network (2010) among others. The writer adapted the stage play for the big screen and the resulting script was subsequently brought to fruition by director Rob Reiner, who helmed several well-known films prior such as The Princess Bride (1987) and Misery (1990).
It stars Tom Cruise years after making a name for himself in Top Gun (1986), Demi Moore who notably starred in St. Elmo’s Fire (1985), and Jack Nicholson who has had countless acting credits and a number of accolades under his belt prior to this role; a role he reportedly loved doing.
They’re joined by actors Kevin Pollack (The Usual Suspects), Kevin Bacon (Footloose), and Kiefer Sutherland (24) in various supporting yet equally captivating roles.
When two young marines are charged of killing a fellow cadet in an alleged “Code Red”, LTJG Daniel Kaffee (Cruise), a young and inexperienced lawyer known for a history of plea bargains, is assigned to the case. He must now work with LCDR JoAnne Galloway (Moore) and LTJG Sam Weinberg (Pollack) to prove their suspicions that the marines were merely acting upon the orders of their superior, Colonel Nathan R. Jessup (Nicholson).
A Few Good Men, if nothing else, features some of the best acting performances from its cast members’ careers before or since. And while its plot has been criticized as being simple and predictable (a criticism that may arguably be true), it does not take away from the brilliance of its script and its actors’ delivery of it.
Cruise delivers a charming yet successfully infuriating performance as the unenthusiastic, inexperienced, and overconfident play-it-safe lawyer Daniel Kaffee. The development of his character into someone who can stand his own and someone who can finally put meaning into the character’s (often) off-putting pseudo-confidence is a believable and exciting sight that’s easily one of the best parts of the film; second only to the captivating performance laid out by Nicholson throughout the piece. More on him later.
The actor shows a level of depth and range in this role that’s somewhat lacking in the later roles of his career. Where nowadays Cruise is known for playing seemingly monotonous roles such as later incarnations of Ethan Hunt from Mission: Impossible (1996-2018), Jack Reacher from Jack Reacher (2012) and Nick Morton from The Mummy (2017), he displays a different and more vulnerable kind of hotshot in A Few Good Men.
Not to say that any of these were objectively bad performances. But it’s the kind of multi-layered performance that Cruise shows in Interview with a Vampire (1994) as Lestat de Lioncourt and Jerry Maguire (1996) as Jerry Maguire that the actor puts in full-display in this film.
Cruise’s and Bacon’s exchange in the courtroom scene is as compelling as it is funny. Each of their characters exude an undeniable sense of charisma that keeps the audience on its toes throughout the latter half of the film.
On the other side of the witness stand is Nicholson, who imbues himself with a palpable yet contained intensity – a kind of delivery that the actor is arguably a master of. In the role of Jessup, Nicholson is calculatingly menacing with a incontrovertible gravitas that brings the words of monologue-master Sorkin to life in the best way.
Speaking of Sorkin, the writer’s proficiency for drama radiates in A Few Good Men with lines that, while admittedly unrealistic, never fail to captivate. It’s his characteristic of dramatic writing that, when paired with an actor like Nicholson, becomes something that is nothing short of iconic.
The plot, while fast-paced and efficient in its storytelling, would’ve done well to leave things to the imagination of the audience. While it can, during many instances, over-explain, A Few Good Men is defined more by its individual moments than its story as a whole.
A Few Good Men is a masterclass of dramatic dialogue writing and performances. While it may not have much in terms of suspense or intrigue, the film’s performances and Sorkin’s script help define its more climactic moments as self-contained cinematic gems. Cruise holds his own as an actor – delivering a memorable performance as Kaffee – but Nicholson owns the familiar territory of his character with a monologue iconic enough to elevate the film as a whole to a standing that would otherwise be unreachable without him.
What’s your favorite scene from A Few Good Men and your favorite Jack Nicholson performance? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!
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