Say what you want about The Firm (1993), but you can hardly fault it for lack of ambition. It’s the first of the big-screen adaptations of John Grisham novels, its leading man was arguably the biggest movie star in the world at the time, and it clocks in at a whopping 154 minutes of star-studded double-crossing that all hinges on its hero’s knowledge of the finer points of tax law. All that, and it never feels boring. It’s an impressive effort, and a mostly successful one.
Tom Cruise plays Mitch McDeere, an overachieving Harvard law grad who gets a plum offer at a hoity-toity Memphis firm right out of school and jumps at the chance, not realizing his new bosses have some pretty unsavory clients and don’t take kindly to associates who want to leave. He never gets the chance to contemplate throwing his hat in with the firm’s illegal doings, as he learns the full story from an FBI agent played by Ed Harris, who gives him two options: go to jail along with his bosses, or inform on them and go into witness protection. McDeere refuses both and finds a third option that lets him avoid being anyone’s prisoner. As a solution, it’s both elegant and endearingly plausible.
Which isn’t to say that Tom Cruise spends the movie poring over law textbooks; he still finds time to chase people down the street (including his wife, played by Jeanne Tripplehorn, in a hilariously unnecessary scene) and engage in some boiler-room gymnastics. Even so, it might be the most purely legal of the spate of legal thrillers that followed. In other John Grisham adaptations, the law is our way in to the story’s central conflict; here, it is the central conflict.
The Firm also has that feeling of wanting to cram in as much of its source material as humanly possible. Many of the characters and subplots could have been simplified or eliminated altogether; there’s a brother (David Strathairn) who’s desperate to get out of prison, a sleazy private investigator (Gary Busey) and his floozy-with-a-heart-of-gold assistant (Holly Hunter), an intensely creepy mentor at the firm (Gene Hackman) who wants to put the moves on McDeere’s wife, and too many partners and henchmen to name. The smarter move would have been to simplify and cut, to merge characters and make the whole thing leaner and more sprightly. Instead it feels as though an even longer film was whittled down to this still-hefty version by trimming the last few seconds off each scene, resulting in sometimes-awkward, often-rushed transitions. But watching it now, it’s hard to fault director Sydney Pollack for this; if it were up to me, I don’t know if I could bring myself to trim down Gary Busey’s scenes either (or David Strathairn’s, or Holly Hunter’s).
One change I would’ve enjoyed would’ve been to make Gene Hackman’s scenes with Jeanne Tripplehorn more complicated and ambiguous. Hackman’s character, Avery Tolar, embodies the excesses and corruption of the firm, and Tripplehorn exploits this by seducing him and then slipping him a roofie so that she can steal information for Cruise’s character. But the firm is also appealing and seductive, especially if you’re vulnerable, and those scenes would have been incredibly suspenseful if Hackman’s character exerted a similar pull over Tripplehorn, who is so fed up with Cruise at that point in the movie that he’s not even aware she’s helping him.
For all its flaws, The Firm feels surprisingly timeless, and it ultimately succeeds despite (or because of) its messiness.
– Ashley Wells watches too many movies and welcomes recommendations for more. Leave her one here or on Twitter: @ashleybwells. Spoiler alert: she has already seen Troll 2.