When Tom Cruise Was Great: 'A Few Good Men' at 20

A Few Good Men marked an exorcism for Cruise, where he shrewdly sent up the character-construct of a young man masking a father-related soul-sickness with some unrepentant recklessness, whether in the air, on the track, behind the bar or with a pool cue that weighed so heavily on him in the 80s.

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There’s much talk of honor in A Few Good Men — what it is, who has it, who doesn’t, how to get it, where it might land on a list of personal assets, and perhaps the debatable manner in which it can be defined vis-à-vis the United States Armed Forces. But at its core, the picture is the light-fare courtroom drama that follows the suspicious death of an unpopular Marine at Guantanamo Bay. It’s best remembered, of course, for a scene where Jack Nicholson’s multiplex-approved version of Walter Kurtz tells a pushy young lawyer played by Tom Cruise that he’s ill-equipped to accept the realities of the moral and ethical dilemmas facing military personnel in the fog of not-exactly-war. The picture, celebrating the 20th anniversary of its American release this month, is worth looking back on not just because of a jaunty screenplay by a young playwright named Aaron Sorkin, or for the aforementioned scene — which isn’t even Nicholson’s best performance in the film, mind you. No, the staying-power of A Few Good Men hangs on the performance of Cruise as a cocky Navy JAG, the role that marks the sweetest-spot of his long career where Movie Star and Actor were in their sharpest alignment, and where Cruise mercifully left his cinematic 80’s behind and began a period where, starting with A Few Good Men and ending in Magnolia, he did his most significant work.

Cruise’s dramatic acting in Taps in 1981, followed two years later by a funny and cleverly understated star-turn in Risky Business — Roger Ebert gushed, “He occupies the movie the way that Dustin Hoffman occupied The Graduate” — pointed to the rise of a promising thespian. But by the end of the 80’s after the gum-smacking, high-fiving, lady-killing Maverick of Top Gun, Cruise had drifted into repetitive caricature, playing roles with pretty much the same emotional DNA: a young man masking a father-related soul-sickness with some unrepentant recklessness, whether in the air, on the track, behind the bar or with a pool cue. It was tiresome, to be sure, and a sojourn into historical drama (Born on the Fourth of July) or period adventure (Far and Away) could not pull him out of the crevasse he had lowered himself into. But A Few Good Men marked an exorcism for Cruise, where he shrewdly sent up the character-construct that weighed so heavily on him. Sure, Cruise’s Daniel Kaffee is living in the shadow of another larger-than-life father, but this time Cruise opts for the flip side of the coin. Instead of adrenalizing his emotional baggage, Kaffee is slothful and indifferent, his cockiness manifesting in apathy rather than self-destructive thrill seeking. Kaffee is the anti-Maverick, and Cruise nestles into him so comfortably that it’s hard to not hear the palpable exhale he gives as he undercuts his then-worn out, cinematic identity.

Counter-punching against prime Nicholson, who does complicated and fascinating work, Cruise executes Ali-caliber rope-a-dope. He lazes and baits, he stumbles and errs, and most importantly, he draws off of Kaffee’s underperforming reputation. He lulls Jessup into the tedium of cross-examination, pulls him into the muck, then slowly begins to jab and parry. He whispers and bellows, prods and teases, and earns every bit of the unbridled contempt Nicholson can infuse into Jessup. Of course, by the time Jessup recognizes how off-balance he is, it’s too late for him. Interestingly, Cruise does to the audience exactly what he does to Nicholson, tempering, breeding underestimation, then finally, delivering a knockout.

It’s great fun, and if one thinks it’s a one-off, just an actor getting a swim in a superior actor’s wake, then look no further than the preliminary rounds, where Kiefer Sutherland and Kevin Bacon, doing some of their best work, take it on the chin as well. Cruise is acting not with but against great acting, and only the most cynical viewer can fail to be taken in. The gem of the film, though, is early in the Second Act, where Cruise announces that he’s playing to win, in a scene at Guantanamo Bay. It’s thrilling, and Jessup threatens, sexually harasses, bullies and brags, all with a smile on his face over what looks like a lovely lunch on his home turf. It’s here that Kaffee/Cruise knows to cash in on his youth and looks, a currency that only the young and the handsome have access to, and he uses it against Jessup as a deadly weapon. Nicholson is a hypersexual actor, using it even when it seems a role needn’t call for it. And he uses it here. Cruise, though, uses his right back, and the rage that it evokes in Nicholson/Jessup surpasses anything that lies ahead in a Washington courtroom.

As for the picture, director Rob Reiner tries too hard to appeal to a broad audience. Sorkin’s play hit themes of anti-Semitism and misogyny much more heavily, and by pulling back here Reiner leaves Kevin Pollack and Demi Moore holding the bag. Even the cursive, too-folksy ‘The End’ feels strained, as if too many executives told Reiner he had just made the next To Kill A Mockingbird. He didn’t.

A friend who recently worked with Cruise had this to say about him: “He will out everything you. He will out work you, outthink you, out stunt you, and out nice you. If you’re an athletic, 25-year-old production assistant he will out sprint you in front of the entire crew. He will out generous you, he will out prepare you, and he’ll know your job and how to do it better than you will.” Knowing what we do about Cruise, none of this is particularly surprising, but many of these attributes are forces of will, a man pushing himself to unknown limits. And one can no more will himself to be a truthful, insightful actor than can one force themselves to be a great painter. Prolific? Sure. But great? The theme of honor weaves its way through the lot of characters in A Few Good Men, but Sorkin and Reiner give Cruise the biggest gorilla to wrestle: A man who dishonors himself by the very way he chooses to live his life. It’s heavy lifting and it’s hard not to evoke Cruise’s very public personal life. For any artist, sheer grit and hard work is a given but there must be some emotional truth to draw upon, to access. Perhaps Cruise will not allow himself access to his true emotionality, as maybe he himself is unclear as to what it really is. But like a novelty Chinese finger trap, the harder he works, the more stunts he pulls off, and the more jets he flies, the further he may be getting from his emotional truth, whatever that may be. And this, of course, is the greatest dishonor of all.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.