A Few Good Men is a real crowd-pleaser; then again, so was Hitler. Directed by Rob Reiner from a script Aaron Sorkin adapted from his own shrewd, popular play, the movie is generally nothing more than a fancy, prestigious version of Top Gun, Days of Thunder, or the Tom Cruise redemption film of your choice. It’s a very lucrative rut Cruise has dug for himself, and here he is, once again, as the cocky jerk who learns to discipline himself and show his true grit. This time he’s called Daniel Kaffee, a Navy lawyer assigned to defend two Marines charged with the murder of another Marine. Kaffee, of course, is too inexperienced and egotistical for the case; the drama is less about the outcome of the case than about the outcome of Kaffee’s maturity. Cruise owns this character template, perhaps because by now it’s so threadbare no one else wants it.
A Few Good Men begins well, with a Marine exercise that has such exaggerated, choreographed snap it’s funny. It’s also about the only sign of the witty Rob Reiner — remember him? — who made This Is Spinal Tap and The Princess Bride. I admire Reiner’s desire to work in many different genres, but this is a disheartening departure. He brings nothing of himself to the proceedings; anyone could have turned the camera on and off. The film, as it progresses, begins to seem like Reiner’s own military exercise — all professional polish, no soul. A gifted director, Reiner does goose some surface excitement out of material that is primarily talk, talk, talk. I could say this is the best A Few Good Men that could be made. But that’s not saying much.
The Marines Kaffee is defending, we’re told, are not monsters but just two none-too-bright jarheads acting on orders from their commanding officer at Guantanamo Bay — Colonel Nathan Jessep (Jack Nicholson), a paranoid warhorse who thinks that bullying and hazing exercises teach weak Marines the value of discipline. As a metaphor for the way the military necessarily coarsens its soldiers by exalting love of country over love of human life, this isn’t bad, but the movie barely explores it. You get the idea that the Navy (represented by Kaffee and his two non-entity assistants, Demi Moore and Kevin Pollak) is Good, and the Marines (represented by Jessep, the two jarheads, and scary Jesus freak Kiefer Sutherland) are Bad. It’s amusing at first, and then a little nauseating, how the film tries to play it both ways.
As the close-cropped, casually vile Jessep, Jack Nicholson does for this movie what Robin Williams did for Aladdin — his outlaw charisma makes up for the beautiful, boring people at the story’s center. Nicholson can still put a wicked spin on any dialogue — the way he inflects “Don’t I feel like the fuckin’ asshole” gets the film’s biggest laugh — and he gets to deliver an entertainingly scandalous routine about how grand it was to screw a woman who outranked him. Yet despite Nicholson’s showboat turn, Jessep is essentially a liberal cartoon of a military ogre. In each of his three scenes, Jessep devolves further and further, until finally, in the courtroom climax, he lunges at Kaffee like Robert De Niro’s Al Capone in The Untouchables. This man is about as believable in real life as Williams’ Genie would be.
What’s truly odd about A Few Good Men is that it asks us to forgive the two Marines for killing a helpless kid. Yeah, they were only following orders — tell that to the dead kid. (The Nazis said that in their own defense, too.) A Few Good Men asks us to applaud the vindication of two moral idiots who are never presented as anything more than dehumanized robots out of a Kubrick film. The movie seems to say, It’s a shame that Marine died, but we have bigger fish to fry — the bigger fish supposedly being the callous ethos that turns some young men into hardened weapons of war and destroys others. But the fish turns out to be a caricatured straw man in the person of the snorting Jessep, a target for easy shots. This lets us off the hook; since the heroes are also military people, we don’t have to feel like leftist peaceniks — horrid thought, isn’t it? — to enjoy seeing the Marines exposed. Perhaps audiences and critics prefer a simplistic drama in which the complex dynamic between the military and those it supposedly protects can be boiled down to the clash between the Top Gun and the Joker.