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There are few actors in mainstream cinema who have the staying power and box office longevity of Tom Cruise, an actor who has been making movies since 1981. Establishing himself early in the coming-of-age drama Risky Business and the military action epic Top Gun to name a few, his good looks and natural acting talents made him a hugely popular figure on screen.
By the early nineties, he’d already had a ten-year string of blockbuster hits before starring in the crime drama The Firm, landing the controversial part of Mitchel McDeere, the hero of the highly-acclaimed novel of the same name by John Grisham. Many were concerned that Cruise was not the right choice and hardly a fit for the character model of the book, but Cruise has made a career out of bending expectations. Think of Interview With A Vampire, Mission: Impossible, and Jack Reacher.
That aside, he joined a strong cast, with some now very familiar names, including Ed Harris, Holly Hunter, David Strathairn, Wilfred Brimley, and Hal Holbrook, not to mention Gene Hackman, whose name was removed from the end credits after a dispute about placement of his name above the title on the poster, a stipulation given only to Cruise. The movie’s story however, is often complex, filled with legal-speak and a sometimes aggressive commitment to layering it all in confusing attorney-client machinations but no matter the plot points, the pace is brisk and the objectives clear so that it rides along comfortably, even at 154 minutes.
THE STORY: Directed by Sydney Pollack, The Firm follows Mitch, a talented, hard-working Harvard grad, as he takes a lucrative offer from a small but highly-successful law firm in Memphis after being courted by others from all over the country. Bendini, Lambert & Locke specializes in accounting and tax law with a small list of clients willing to pay huge fees for the services, some of them not so much on the up and up. Showering Mitch in perks and promises of high earnings, they win him and his new wife Abby (Jeanne Tripplehorn) over with their family-like bond and additional benefits, including a new Mercedes and a house at low cost. The big money aside, Mitch feels right at home in the firm and takes to the job quickly, as Abby becomes a teacher at a nearby school.
Mitch has to study for the Bar Exam and is put under tremendous pressure while details about the firm’s possible shady practices linger, made all the more impactful by the presence of the FBI, who come poking around after a high number of lawyers have died unexpectedly. Abby suspects something is not right, and Mitch has his worries, but when he travels to the Caymans with his mentor Avery Tolar (Hackman), he learns about the firm’s sketchy off-shore practices. The problem though is that Mitch finds himself seduced by a sexy local girl in an encounter on the beach one evening, not realizing it’s a setup that garners images … and then blackmail.
The story builds from here with Mitch trying to escape the clutches of his new job, which isn’t so easy as he has to be tactful while the company’s security chief (Brimley)– a particular bit of nasty–remains hot on his heels. Meanwhile, Avery is bewitched by Abby, and as Mitch schemes to topple the giant, a plan is set into motion that involves incriminating files and a trip back to the Caymans. And it is here where we must stop and take a closer look a great moment, one where betrayal crushes with devastating weight.
Avery is a married man but not happily. Resolved to his foibles, he runs around. A lot. He also claims his wife understands him, that she has lost interest, to which he thinks he has as well. One day, desperate for Abby’s attention, he spontaneously invites her to come with him to the islands and she, angered already by Mitch’s infidelity, not knowing it was a set up, is torn, not because she is tempted by Avery, but that she filled with rage.
Meanwhile, there is a plan in action to steal company files and deliver them to the FBI, one that demands Mitch have access to the firm’s island bungalow. It center’s on Avery’s habit of diving in the afternoon, but Abby learns Avery won’t be in the water after all. Unable to contact him, fearful he will be caught, Abby flies down to the Caymans without Mitch’s knowledge and an outdoor bar, surprises Avery. What Avery doesn’t know though, is she brought a gift, a baggie full of sleeping drugs she mixes in his drink.
The two head back to his room, he thinking she is here for sex, and she waiting for him to pass out. He begins to undress her, but coursing through his veins are a powerful sedative causing him to slurs his words. His head grows heavy. A smart man, he catches on something isn’t right, and with whatever he can muster, demands he tell her why she’s here, accusing her of not being truthful. Her answer weakens him, and as he succumbs, she kisses him for the sake of his dignity and as closure for a pain she bears inside.
This meaningful exchange is the film’s strongest moment, punctuated by another the next morning when Avery learns of the betrayal and the consequences of his actions. Ailing and immobile from the effects of the drugs, he accepts the injustice made upon him as penance of sorts, bearing no ill-will for Abby. His fate is sealed by a phone call from Memphis.
Hackman is the real star of this film, a secondary character who we think is one thing but ends up another, a mouse caught in the maze just waiting for the last door to close. He is a man of addiction, consumed by sexual passion and the company of beautiful women, now to the point where he feels entitled, not shying away from his ladies-man reputation but embracing it. Unfamiliar with rejection, he is incited by Abby’s resistance, she a prize worth losing much over. He risks everything to have just one night with her, himself not even sure what draws him to her.
This moment is about her exploitation of this weakness and both Hackman and Tripplehorn balance this with great skill in a sensational study on timing, reaction, partnership and trust, making this a gripping sequence of emotional distress. Hackman’s slow slump into unconsciousness as he grapples with a painful truth is matched by Tripplehorn’s delicate dance of reflection as she guides him to that betrayal before sealing it with a gesture of incredible kindness.
The significance of the moment comes only the next morning when all is lost for Avery, and as the film picks up steam again, we learn her efforts have helped, but have only caused even more danger. We also get a sense that though she traveled here for Mitch, a bigger reason was to settle a score in her heart, an act of defiance that left one man ruined forever while working to save and hurt another. It’s a great cinematic moment.