MOVIE REVIEW : Two of the Best 'Men' : Jack Nicholson and Tom Cruise star in an old-fashioned military courtroom drama that is a tribute to pure star power.

TIMES FILM CRITIC

"A Few Good Men" takes you back. Way back. A brisk and familiar courtroom drama of the old school, as pleasant to watch as it is predictable, "Men" more than anything else is a tribute to pure star power, an assured reminder of the days when actors played by the rules and didn't hesitate to do the things audiences liked to see them doing.

Centered, like "The Caine Mutiny" before it, around a trial inside a military courtroom, "A Few Good Men" (citywide) would like you to think it's about such weighty topics as the misuse of power and a young man's struggle to find himself, but no one will be coming out of theaters whistling those tunes. Rather this film's true reason for being is to give Jack Nicholson and Tom Cruise, old lion and young pretender, the kinds of juicy roles they do best and then turn them loose to rock and roll.

For those who wondered what Cruise was up to wandering around Ireland in funny clothes and an uncertain accent, he's back in business as Navy Lt. J.G. Daniel Kaffee, a self-confident wiseacre with a million-watt smile who could be the separated-at-birth twin of "Top Gun's" cocky Maverick. It's a persona Cruise knows inside out, but rather than walk through the part, he attacks it with vigor, and one of the achievements of both Aaron Sorkin's script and Rob Reiner's direction is that they found ways to rekindle the actor's interest in such a well-worn dramatic stance.

As enjoyably energetic as Cruise is, Nicholson goes him one better. A performer with more experience (and more range), Nicholson is capable of all manner of movie star brassiness, and his pivotal albeit supporting role as man-eating Marine Col. Nathan R. Jessup is a treat, the kind of showy, self-confident acting that awards were made for and that this picture would be in serious trouble without.

Before we get to either Nicholson or Cruise, a little plotting is in order. "Men" (rated R for language) opens on the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Two pairs of hurried footsteps are heard on a Marine barracks hallway, a door is opened, a frightened young man is roused from his bed, his mouth and wrists roughly taped and then everything is darkness.

Cut to stateside, and Lt. Cmdr. JoAnne Galloway (Demi Moore in a brisk, buttoned-down performance). A military attorney with more passion than street smarts, she wants desperately to defend those two young men from Guantanamo. They have been charged with murder, the fellow Marine whose mouth they taped having died soon after the attack. For the accused, it turns out, are not troublemakers but recruiting poster Marines, the good guys, and Galloway suspects that an ominous tradition called a Code Red was the real cause of that accidental death.

The Navy (which, though no one bothers to explain it, has legal jurisdiction over the Marines) has other plans. The Marines' defense is handed over to Lt. Kaffee (Cruise), a breezy type just out of law school. More interested in plea bargaining than in defending anyone and more interested in softball than in anything, he and junior counsel Lt. Sam Weinberg (a quietly amusing Kevin Pollak) figure this case will not be a severe drain on their time.

They figure without Kaffee's military superior, the other half of this odd couple legal team, the bulldog Lt. Cmdr. Galloway. Irritated by the young man's insolent, who-cares attitude, she keeps yapping at him until he takes both her and the case seriously.

And don't forget Col. Jessup (Nicholson), the hard-case Marine commander down at Guantanamo who is not shy about saying that he eats breakfast each and every morning eyeball to eyeball with ever so many armed Cubans who'd love to wax his hide. In fact, more interesting than this film's story (and more believable) is its back story, the portrayal of a world of spit-and-polish fanatics who believe in their military culture of honor and violence and their harsh code of behavior with a fervor usually reserved for more spiritual matters.

While watching Nicholson and Cruise chew on each other and gnaw on the scenery is quite a treat, everything in "A Few Good Men" doesn't work as efficiently as their performances. The film's plot, taken from Sorkin's long-running Broadway play, is more contrived than creditable, motivations are not always clear, and some characters, for instance Kiefer Sutherland as a praise the lord and pass the ammunition Marine, are not very convincingly acted.

Yet director Reiner has more than enough professionalism at his command as well as a shrewd feel for the mechanics of mass entertainment to involve us in his tale. To be in a tense courtroom and hear confident attorneys cuttingly say, "Your witness," as they make haughty experts squirm is always a pleasure. Though it would be a mistake to get too excited over what, for all its grand designs, remains an uncomplicated piece of entertainment, simple pleasures like these are getting harder and harder to find.

'A Few Good Men'

Tom Cruise: Lt. (J.G.) Daniel Kaffee

Jack Nicholson: Col. Nathan R. Jessup

Demi Moore: Lt. Cmdr. JoAnne Galloway

Kevin Bacon: Capt. Jack Ross

Kiefer Sutherland: Lt. Jonathan Kendrick

Kevin Pollak: Lt. Sam Weinberg

Castle Rock Entertainment presents a David Brown production, released by Columbia Pictures. Director Rob Reiner. Producers David Brown, Rob Reiner, Andrew Scheinman. Executive producers William Gilmore, Rachel Pfeffer. Screenplay Aaron Sorkin, based on his play. Cinematographer Robert Richardson. Editor Robert Leighton. Costumes Gloria Gresham. Music Marc Shaiman. Production design J. Michael Riva. Art director Dave Klassen. Set decorator Michael Taylor. Running time: 2 hours, 18 minutes.

MPAA-rated R (language).

For the Record Los Angeles Times Monday December 14, 1992 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 4 Column 4 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 22 words Type of Material: Correction Wrong photographer--A photograph of Tom Cruise in Friday's Calendar section was credited to the wrong photographer. The photographer was Michele Singer.
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