Paramount // 1993 // 154 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Patrick Naugle // May 26th, 2011
Get ready to run.
I still remember seeing that almost glassy green book cover, the one with the lawyer attached to puppet strings dangling on a marble wall with his briefcase shifted to his side. It's an indelible childhood memory for me -- it was the first time I picked up a John Grisham novel: The Firm. In 1993 one of the world's top movie stars signed up for what was, at the time, one of the most popular fictional characters in print: Mitch McDeere. Directed by the acclaimed Sydney Pollack (Out of Africa, Tootsie) and starring one of the strongest casts in recent memory, The Firm makes its high def debut care of Paramount Home Entertainment.
Ambitious Mitch McDeere (Tom Cruise, War of the Worlds) has graduated top of his class at Harvard Law and is on the fast track to finding a dream job with any number of the nation's most prestigious law firms. Decisions loom for Mitch and his young wife, Abby (Jeanne Triplehorn, TV's Big Love), and when a smaller Memphis firm of Bendini, Lambert & Locke match Mitch's highest offer plus twenty percent with perks, Mitch finds the deal too good to pass up. Mitch and Abby's move to Memphis and the first few days at the firm run like clockwork until Mitch begins to suspect that things aren't completely on the up and up. As Mitch digs deeper into the firm's shady mob dealings and twisted billing history he realizes that while he's been made the deal of a lifetime, Mitch's life may not be his own anymore. Thus starts a series of cat and mouse encounters as Mitch faces one of the toughest choices in his young life: loyalty to the firm or a possible relocation six feet underground.
Oh early 1990s, how I remember you so well. Kurt Cobain. Jurassic Park. Parachute pants. So many found memories of my early teen years come flooding back when I think about the start of that decade, and none quite as vivid as when I sat down and read the John Grisham thriller The Firm. Anyone alive during this time knows that Grisham's novel about a young lawyer caught up in a corrupt law firm was not only a runaway best seller but an total and utter phenomenon. You kids thought Harry Potter was a big deal? Pfft. You shoulda been around when a new Grisham book was released! So good was John Grisham's writing that he was able to engage a high school kid who had little to no knowledge about the law and, frankly, read mostly Stephen King novels about big drooling beasties in the dark. Although my time in Grisham's stories was brief -- I would read both his first novel "A Time to Kill" and "The Firm" follow up "The Pelican Brief" before abandoning Grisham for good -- it was certainly a fun, worthwhile ride.
In 1993, as The Firm was still burning up the bestseller charts, director Sydney Pollack helmed the first adaptation of Grisham's stories. Snagging Tom Cruise as the young and idealistic lawyer as well as a cavalcade of great character actors, Pollack produced a film that was (mostly) faithful to the original source material. Against all odds, The Firm worked. That may not sound like high praise, but the fact is that with a movie like this -- whose book was an interweaving web of stories and lawyer speak -- just working seems like some kind of a miracle. The Firm has its moments of muddiness (especially as the story breathlessly and sometimes confusingly comes to a close), but finds itself in strong footing as both a courtroom drama (set mostly outside the courtroom) and a tight, taut suspense thriller.
The success of The Firm's characters and story lies in the late director's sharp understanding of the story and the conservative film editing of William and Frederic Steinkamp. Whatever fat entered the original shoot is left on the cutting room floor; the movie is tightly paced even at a nearly busting two and a half hours. Grisham's original story is intact with some slight tweaks (most notably during the climactic ending). Tom Cruise plays Mitch with a naïve twinkle, and for me this may be the quintessential Cruise performance -- Cruise's transformation from happy graduate to suspicious lawyer is gradual and believable without being jarring. I've never been the biggest Tom Cruise fan; most of Cruise's films I've liked in spite of him and not because of him. With The Firm I was fully engaged in Mitch McDeere and found something new to admire about the couch jumping Mr. Holmes.
Even better than Cruise is the golden cast of character actors put together by Pollack's cinematic collaborators. The roster reads like a who's who of classic character actors: Gene Hackman (who also appeared in Grisham's The Chamber), David Strathairn (Dolores Claiborne), Hal Holbrook (Into the Wild), Holly Hunter (Raising Arizona), Ed Harris (Pollack), Gary Busey (The Buddy Holly Story) -- just to name a few -- who've gone on to do great work in recent releases. Hackman is especially touching as Avery Tolar, Mitch's momentary mentor at the firm who knows what's going on but is helpless to stop the eventual outcome. One of Hackman's talents as an actor has been to find the space between corruption and decency; in Avery Tolar, he's just about figured that out to masterful effect. Ed Harris' bald, intimidating figure looms as an FBI agent trying to persuade Mitch to turn snitch while Strathairn -- my favorite actor of the last decade -- gives a subdued but effective performance as Mitch's imprisoned brother, Ray. Even Jeanne Triplehorn manages to sidestep the usual doe-eyed, patient wife performance and makes Abby a tougher and more resourceful woman than at first glance.
While John Grisham's star still burns, it would never shine half as bright as the moment when The Firm was finally released and became a runaway hit at the box office. It's as if the movie gods brought everything together for near perfections -- The Firm could have easily failed 1,001 different ways, but Pollack, Cruise and the highly talented cast and crew are able to keep the story afloat even for people who don't know the difference between a legal brief and Fruit of the Loom briefs. It's almost twenty years later and The Firm has lost none of its tension and power.
The Firm is presented in 1.78:1 widescreen in 1080p, and aside of a few minor blemishes this is a very good looking transfer. There are a lot of bustling colors to be found in this picture, and the image has never looked clearer or cleaner. The Cayman Islands have a deep blue to them while any darker scenes are solid without too much heavy grain. Although I wouldn't say that this transfer is 100% perfect (some light edge enhancement creeps into the image), I can safely say it's a huge step up from the original DVD release.
The soundtrack is presented in Dolby TrueHD 5.1 in English and isn't anything to write home about. It's not that the sound mix is bad -- in fact, it's top notch and well replicated. It's just that The Firm is not a movie that depends on heavy bombastic sound cues or a thrilling orchestral score. The Firm is a very dialogue heavy movie and as such this soundtrack is low key; the best feature is composer Dave Grusin's (The Goonies, Havana) jazzy, sparse piano score (still a highlight on my iPod every now and then). Overall this sound mix does the job that's needed. Also included on this disc is a Dolby 5.1 mix in French and Spanish; as well as Spanish, French, English and Portuguese subtitles.
The Firm is completely out of order when it comes to supplemental materials -- all fans get is a teaser trailer and a theatrical trailer for the film.
The Firm doesn't disappoint. Although it's been almost 20 years (!) since it's theatrical release, the film is still a riveting, smart ride with top notch performances and a wonderfully sparse Dave Grusin piano score. Paramount's Blu-ray edition may be limited on special features, but the video and audio are both well worth the upgrade. I give this movie a very high recommendation.
The Firm's only failing is a lack of any extra features. Otherwise,
this is one thriller that truly thrills.
Review content copyright © 2011 Patrick Naugle; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 154 Minutes
Release Year: 1993
MPAA Rating: Rated R