' ' Cinema Romantico: Some Drivel On...The Firm

Tuesday, September 08, 2020

Some Drivel On...The Firm

Released in June 1993, six months ahead of “The Pelican Brief”, “The Firm” was the first of the not-called Grisham Wave, movies culled from adaptations of John Grisham print legal thrillers. As someone who has grown weary of a Hollywood only interested in big, bigger or biggest, I yearn for middlebrow trash in the vein of Grisham and finally, for the first time since I rented it from the small video store in my hometown so many moons ago, I returned to the semi-big bang of the Grisham-verse. But if I went in hoping to uncover something new about what makes courtroom cinema click, I unexpectedly came away with a deeper understanding of Cruise – that is, Tom.

“The Firm” begins with Cruise in full “Cocktail” mold, playing Mitch McDeere, a striving eager beaver who has just graduated from law school. It makes sense, then, given that Cruise go-getter grin, that when some unknown law firm in Memphis make Mitch and his wife Abby (Jeanne Tripplehorn) an offer too good to be true, he would seize on it. It turns out, of course, after they settle in and Mitch signs on The Firm’s dotted line that not everything is copacetic. No, The Firm is a front for the Mafia and the Mafia’s money laundering. It’s obvious, maybe, but the way it ends, with a punchline more than a punch, turning on the Firm’s propensity for overbilling, almost makes one think the movie might be on its own joke, seeking to portray corporate America and the mob as one and the same. But Grisham, as he did in “The Rainmaker”, cannot help but make googly eyes at the Law and all that the capital letter entails. By following it, Mitch is able to thread the needle.

In doing a little post-movie reading, I discovered “The Firm” had a little pre-release squabbling. It seems that upon entering the production late, Gene Hackman, playing Mitch’s Firm mentor Avery Tolar, asked for his name to be placed above the title on the poster. Cruise’s contract, however, stipulated that only his name appear above the title. Hackman then requested his name appear nowhere on the poster. In some ways, this saddened me, a noted iconoclast like Hackman caring in the first place about such minor marketing rubbish, though he was a temperamental iconoclast so perhaps it rang true. Whatever, this dispute did not affect his performance. I struggle to describe what he is doing except to say you do not really notice what he’s doing; he just does it. He innately inhabits his character, a little slimy, a little unscrupulous but quietly sympathetic in the way he seems to acknowledge without really acknowledging at all how this life in the Firm has spiritually undone him. Cruise, on the other hand, lets you see what he’s doing every step of the way.

One of the emergent plot narratives is that when Mitch and Abby learn The Firm’s dark secret and cooperate with the FBI, sort of, they are required to act like nothing is amiss. Cruise, though, approaches myriad moments as if EVERYTHING is amiss. The most unbelievable element of “The Firm”, in fact, is that Avery never deduces Mitch’s real motives considering Cruise allows the whole truth and nothing but the truth to be written across Mitch’s face. But at the same time, whenever “The Firm” indulges its inner-thriller and really requires Cruise to get physical, his ultra-commitment works. There is a moment near the start when, upon seeing a kid performing gymnastics on the street, Mitch just erupts into a series of back flips. It’s set up for later when, pursued by The Firm’s assassin, Mitch hides by hanging from the ceiling. But simply to see Cruise in this moment, hanging from the ceiling, sweat accumulating on his face, is to believe his character could do this regardless of whether or not we see him back flipping. Watch how he runs, either after his wife or away from the bad guys, still carrying a briefcase and improbably you see a logical line from “The Firm” to the recent scene in “Mission: Impossible – Fallout” when he runs for, like, five minutes through the streets of London. To see Tom Cruise run is to see Tom Cruise in his natural acting habitat, not having to convince us of anything but his own unrelenting sense of physical purpose.

We all remember when Tom jumped up and down on Oprah’s couch; it made him the butt of all the jokes. But Cruise was telling us something about himself, something that you see just as clearly in “The Firm” as in these recent “M:I” pop masterpieces. In that moment, on Oprah’s couch, he stripped away everything else, leaving only the zany-eyed commitment. 

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