`A Few Good Men' Doesn't Fit the Bill

Rob Reiner's new film is gripping and well-acted, but he tries too hard to direct viewers' emotions for them

`A FEW GOOD MEN" comes from the busy camera of director Rob Reiner, who has directed all kinds of movies in recent years, from the comedy of "The Princess Bride" to the romance of "When Harry Met Sally..." and the suspense of "Misery."

Through all these pictures, Mr. Reiner has developed one skill above all others: an ability to make the audience think and feel what he wants us to think and feel, and just when he wants us to do it. When you're watching a horror story like "Misery," being manipulated is part of the fun.

It gets a bit irksome, however, in a film like "A Few Good Men," which has serious things in mind, and leads you to expect a more serious approach from the filmmaker.

It's a very watchable picture, with plenty of drama and some good laughs. But you can't forget for a moment that Reiner is taking your emotions on a carefully guided tour. You're never allowed to choose your response to the story - only to laugh, frown, or shiver when the movie tosses you a well-calculated cue.

I think "A Few Good Men" will be a solid hit. Yet at the same time, I think it will provoke less interest or discussion than it might have if Reiner had trusted us to think for ourselves once in a while.

The story falls into that fine old genre called the courtroom drama. On the American Navy base in Guantanamo, Cuba, two young Marines have been charged with murdering a member of their platoon.

Their defense is that the victim died accidentally while they were putting him through a punishment routine often used at their base. But getting them off won't be easy - because they did break official regulations, and because the military wants to avoid embarrassment that might take place at a trial.

The main characters of the film are the lawyers for the two men: a fast-talking Harvard grad who'd rather cop a plea than try a case, and a conscientious officer who's determined to prove the truth of the matter, no matter who's hurt or humiliated by it.

They're an odd couple in just about every way, from gender (the Harvard grad is a man, the superior officer is a woman) to their vision of the law and its purposes.

As with most courtroom dramas, the quality of "A Few Good Men" rests largely on the quality of its acting. This is generally high, if rarely inspired. Tom Cruise gives the most fully rounded, least show-offy performance of his career, really getting inside the arrogant young attorney he plays.

Demi Moore is equally strong as his partner in the case, giving her character a good deal of authority even when the screenplay works against her, as it frequently does.

Also on hand is Jack Nicholson as a commanding officer who may be hiding a secret; while his part is fairly small - he disappears from the screen for surprisingly long periods - he's such a towering movie star that he makes a riveting impression all the same.

The colorful supporting cast includes Kevin Bacon, Kiefer Sutherland, and J.T. Walsh. Robert Richardson, a frequent collaborator with Oliver Stone, was the able cinematographer.

With all these talents in its favor, it's too bad "A Few Good Men" goes on much too long, and has some outbursts of foul language that will needlessly alienate some moviegoers who otherwise might have enjoyed the picture.

Another problem is the movie's sadly reactionary sense of gender politics: Ms. Moore's character outranks Mr. Cruise's character, but the screenplay (by Aaron Sorkin, based on his Broadway play) goes through contortions to give him all the power plays and most of the good lines. It's hard to imagine how the entertainment establishment could think this sort of sexism is acceptable in our supposedly enlightened time, but the producers are probably congratulating themselves for having a woman play one of th e lawyers in the first place, so perhaps we should be grateful for small favors.

In other respects, "A Few Good Men" is an engaging and sometimes gripping movie, if ultimately a superficial one. Reiner has mastered the surface skills of moviemaking, although the inner depths continue to elude him.

* The movie is rated r for language. It contains some explicitly raw talk about sex as well as four-letter epithets; there is also some on-screen violence.

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