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Non-Review Review: The Firm

The Firm would be an entertaining little thriller, if it ran maybe half-an-hour shorter. John Grisham’s legal thrillers were pretty much the gold standard for lawyer-related movies during the nineties, with any number of movies adapted freely from his books (notably in the format of “The [insert noun here]“ like “The Firm”, The Client, The Rainmakerand so on). It’s a shame, because I believe that The Firm might have, with a little judicious editing, had the capacity to be the best Gresham adaptation out there. Instead, it’s too bloated to really make an impact.

It's no coincidence that "lawyer" and "liar" sound so similar...

The movie actually has an intriguing hook. We follow Tom Cruise as a hardworking, one-of-the-best-in-his-year law students who doesn’t come from trust fund money and interviews for “$68,000 dollars a year” jobs while on his lunch break from the job he has at the college canteen to make ends meet. Of course, one particular firm pursues him, with a huge offer and huge potential for advancement, and make it clear that he is the only applicant they’ve interviewed this year. The eponymous firm, operating out of Memphis, seems like a small, tightly-knit group – but they have huge resources.

From the outset, any particular genre savvy viewer will spot that something is not quite right. The partners stress that “stability in the family” is vital for their employees. “No one’s divorced in the firm,” we’re informed, and they’ve never had an unmarried employee. There are no women practicing as lawyers, although “they had one once.” The firm provides everything that its employees need, even furnishing their home, but it seems they intend to exert a worrying amount of control over the lives of their employees and their families. “Working isn’t forbidden,” the lead’s wife is told, as if she has been granted some great dispensation. “How could it be forbidden?” she wonders, as the subject is quickly changed.

His life is on the line...

It’s funny to look at this in the wake of revelations about various employment practices at large multi-national companies. In this respect, the film and the book might have been ahead of their time (at least in really bringing the matter to public attention). There’s a sense that the firm is seeking to slowly suffocate our two leads, and that they might have made a deal with the devil. Not literally, of course. A movie where Satan runs a law firm? That would be ridiculous! Next you’d ask me to accept Keanu Reeves as a lawyer.

However, things quickly become far more sinister. A number of employees die in a strange accident – something that has apparently happened with alarming regularity over the years. Our young lead, taken under the wing of Gene Hackman, wonders how far the firm should bend the rules for their clients. “As far as you can without breaking,” comes the reply. It becomes very clear that the company is keeping a very close eye on its employees – perhaps too close an eye, even monitoring the use of office photocopiers. Something is indeed quite wrong.

Can Cruise Hack it?

The movie works remarkably well in generating a sense of paranoia and unease. This works for the first hour or so. However, the movie eventually has to offer an explanation for what is going on and – to be frank – it’s actually quite a logical reason we’re given. That said, the movie continues to try to build tension even after we know exactly what the game and the players are, perhaps unnecessarily. It seems that the second hour of the film is just the characters flailing around, waiting for the third act to arrive so something can actually happen.

The cast helps matters quite a bit though. Even though the film is not awesome enough to contain the raw energy that is Gary Busey for more than two scenes, he still steals the show. An ensemble made up of Holly Hunter, David Strathairn, Hal Holbrook and Ed Harris can’t really go too far wrong, even if nobody seems to be doing much for most of the film. Still, they help to keep the movie at least watchable, and the fact that most of the cast is far more recognisable now than they were back then is a testament to the talent involved.

The naked truth...

There are moments, however, which stretch the paranoia just a little bit too thin. For example, when our plucky young lawyer is meeting with a Department of Justice or FBI agent, he’s directed to him by an undercover agent at the Lincoln Memorial – disguised as a homeless veteran handing out papers. That sounds like a pretty crummy undercover assignment, and I wonder what kind of budget these departments are working on that they can keep an “undercover newspaper guy” on their payroll for moments like this – especially since one assumes that there’s make-up and costuming and everything involved. I would have hated to have drawn the short straw on that sting operation.

“Okay, you’re going to sit there all morning handing out papers until this one guy walks up to you.”

“Can’t I just follow him and talk to him on the bus?”

“No.”

“Brush past him when he gets off the bus?”

“No.”

“What if he doesn’t want a newspaper?”

“Um…”

There’s also the fact that Tobin Bell in a blonde wig with a Scandinavian accent (he’s credited as “Nordic Man”) might be the most hilarious thing I’ve seen this week. I was very disappointed he never uttered the line, “I’m here to kill you now, ya?” The scene where he chased an air-tram across a bridge was more hilarious than threatening, if only because I was waiting for that wig to blow off. The soundtrack is also just a little bit too light-hearted for the material, calling to mind something like a caper feature rather than a tense edge-of-your-seat thriller.

I want this on my desk by this afternoon...

It seems a bit trite to dismiss a film as “too long”, but The Firm really is. It’s too long for the plot and characterisation that it contains, to be honest – and everything feels stretched as a result. It’s also somewhat disappointing that, when the climax arrives, it never really feels like a pay-off.

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