LAWYER movies have been around for ages, ranging from first-rate pictures like "Witness for the Prosecution" to scruffier melodramas like "Body Heat" and the recent "Cape Fear" remake.
"The Firm," starring Tom Cruise and Gene Hackman, aims for the higher end of that spectrum. The cast is sensational, the photography looks great, and the story has interesting characters and plenty of built-in suspense.
If the film isn't as compelling as it wants to be, it's because the narrative is more superficially clever than intelligent, and wears thin before its 2-1/2 hours are over. Still, the first half of the picture is smartly entertaining, and even the draggy last hour has enough surprises to compensate for confusion in the plot and too many chase sequences.
"The Firm" is also fairly restrained by today's standards - earning its R rating with some foul language, but holding sex and violence to lower levels than in many current offerings.
Cruise plays Mitch McDeere, a top-of-his-class Harvard Law School grad who's being courted by every high-grade firm in the land. He chooses a little-known outfit in Memphis, not because it promises more opportunity or stimulation than the others, but because he likes the warmly old-fashioned people who work there - and the six-figure salary they offer him.
The firm has peculiarities, though, and Mitch's wife starts noticing these before he does. Wives of employees aren't "forbidden" to have their own jobs, she's told - which makes her wonder what is forbidden. And what kind of firm aggressively encourages its partners to have children, so the ensuing responsibilities will ensure lasting dependence on their employer?
Deeper mysteries start surfacing when Mitch plunges into his new job. Some are technical, such as the eagerness of a senior partner to bend the law precariously far on behalf of a client. Others are more serious, and more frightening. In the past few years, Mitch learns, four members of the firm have met untimely deaths. Coincidence? Maybe. But how to explain their "missing" files in a secret room at a faraway resort?
With knowledge like this, Mitch can't shake the suspicion that something is terribly wrong. Then he hears from the FBI, which confirms his fears and demands his help in exposing the firm's connection with organized crime. He finds himself in a triple bind: leave the firm and risk being murdered, or stay and be arrested, or help the FBI by breaking his oath of confidentiality, which means he'll never be allowed to practice law again.
LL this is only the setup for the overlong action sequences in "The Firm," and for the many plot twists - some ingenious, others not - that result when Mitch dreams up a way to beat the bad guys and solve his own predicament.
The end of the story is satisfying in a Hollywoodish way, complete with fast-moving climax and victorious conclusion. But it portrays Mitch as more interested in salvaging his professional future than in cleaning up all the evil he's encountered; and it encourages us to accept his shortcuts as a reasonable compromise. While this isn't bad enough to be called an inexcusable ethical failing in the movie, it suggests that "The Firm" resembles the law firm in its willingness to hedge on moral issues.
There's little to complain about in the film's acting. Cruise outdoes the mature performance he gave in "A Few Good Men" not long ago, and Hackman is his usual convincing self as Mitch's mentor. Jeanne Tripplehorn conveys both strength and vulnerability as the hero's wife.
The supporting cast includes a long list of appealing talents. Among them are Hal Holbrook as the firm's top attorney; Ed Harris as a belligerent FBI agent; Gary Busey as a hard-boiled private eye; Holly Hunter as his feisty assistant; Steven Hill as a government official; and Wilford Brimley, cast against type, as the firm's nasty security expert.
Special credit goes to Terry Kinney as one of Mitch's fellow employees and David Strathairn as Mitch's brother, a likable jailbird. Paul Sorvino also makes an uncredited appearance in a marvelously minimalistic turn as a Mafia hood.
"The Firm" was capably directed and produced by Sydney Pollack, whose long career includes many Hollywood films with a serious edge, from "Tootsie" and "Three Days of the Condor" to "The Way We Were" and "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?"
The screenplay is credited to David Rabe and the team of Robert Towne and David Rayfiel, based on John Grisham's bestselling novel; it's at its best when snappy dialogue, not expansive action, is the main focus. John Seale did the colorful cinematography, and Dave Grusin composed the neatly jazz-inflected score.
* `The Firm' has an R rating. It contains scenes of sex and violence as well as some extremely vulgar language.