"And when we get to the end, all the magic in the world will not have been able to divert your attention from the fact that William Santiago is dead, and Dawson and Downey killed him. These are the facts of the case, and they are undisputed."
Lost amid the digital dinosaurs that took the summer by storm in 1993, A Few Good Men is a film told in the "traditional manner." That is to say, rather than emphasizing effects, clever story, or action, the film focused on characters and actors. While box offices reveled in the roar of Industrial Light and Magic's photo-realistic dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, A Few Good Men concerned itself with more mundane matters of military court. Thankfully, however, the film emerged from its theatrical period intact with healthy, indeed even blockbuster, revenue levels, and has gone on to become a "new classic" as we approach seven full years since release.
Director Rob Reiner (The Princess Bride, Misery, The American President) didn't make any of the common mistakes so often seen theatrically of late. He kept the film focused on what it is: a character drama. By focusing everything solely on the acting skills of his vastly talented cast, by immersing the audience in the characters, Reiner succeeded in capturing some amazing performances by both established and younger actors.
"Dual leads" were Tom Cruise (Cocktail, The Firm, Mission Impossible II) and Jack Nicholson (As Good As It Gets, Mars Attacks!, Batman) as, respectively, Lt. Daniel Kaffee and Col. Nathan Jessep. While it's for accountants, publicity agents, and star egos to work out who should (or deserves) "top billing" between these two, it can at least be said both are quite talented. Pitted against one another onscreen in A Few Good Men, Cruise and Nicholson provide the film its punch, its heart. The crux of the story, and the apex of enjoyment here, are the interactions between Kaffee as the young, somewhat naïve JAG lawyer and Jessep as the crusty, veteran military man on the verge of assuming Chairmanship of the Joint Chiefs.
Each are good in their roles. Cruise's Kaffee is painfully young, playful, eager to goof off and take the easy way out. He's coasting on his family name and innate talent, not really interested in climbing new mountains. Nicholson's Jessep is overwhelmingly experienced, speaking with the weight and authority of years of service. He's crafty and calculated, always in control, always ahead of the game.
Reiner captured their performances wonderfully, as both turned in brilliant work. Indeed, pop culture references to the thunderous climatic scene still surface today, and show no particular signs of slackening. Apart from the two leads, the rest of the cast is an All Star assemblage of acting talents and faces. From the more recognizable to mainstream audience members (Demi Moore (St. Elmo's Fire, Ghost, Indecent Proposal) as Lt. Cmdr. Galloway; Kevin Bacon (The Hollow Man, Wild Things, Stir of Echoes) as Cptn. Ross; Kiefer Sutherland (The Three Musketeers, Dark City, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me) as Lt. Kendrick; Kevin Pollak (End of Days, The Usual Suspects, Indian Summer) as Lt. Sam Weinberg) to the "cult favorite" actors (James Marshall (Twin Peaks) as PFC Downey; J.T. Walsh (Pleasantville) as Col. Markinson; Christopher Guest (Saturday Night Live) as Dr. Stone; Cuba Gooding Jr. (Jerry Maguire); Noah Wyle (ER); Xander Berkeley (Terminator 2, Air Force One)); the cast is a cascade of recognizable faces. As the film ages, the "hey" factor only increases, as more and more minor members of the cast go on to make a mark for themselves.
Of particular note amid the rest of the cast are Bacon as the friend-yet-courtroom-foe JAG prosecutor, Moore as the oblivious-to-the-real-world-rules-yet-eager-to-help senior JAG staffer, and also Wolfgang Bodison as Lance Corporal Dawson. Bodison, in particular, turned in a fine performance, but a check of the IMDb shows he's not seen much work, either before or after, that indicates he's moved on to success. A real shame.
Enough about the cast, what about the film? Simple enough, really. A Marine who doesn't quite measure up to the Marine standard and Way Of Doing Things is hazed by two fellow Marines at the Corp's base in Cuba. The incident results in the Marine's death, which leads to the two Marines being taken into custody on a variety of charges under the Uniform Code of Military Conduct. The system decides to sweep this under the rug to avoid things getting messy, and thus Kaffee is unwittingly assigned to the case based on his fast, slick way of handling his duties to date. Galloway, politically unsophisticated despite her seniority, is assigned to watch over matters "officially," while unofficially it is thought her lack of skill with trial work will keep her from causing any problems. Jessep is the commanding officer for the Marine base, and as the investigation moves forward, the focus eventually begins to hinge on whether or not he was aware of the events leading up to, and surrounding, the hazing incident.
The above paragraph doesn't really begin to do justice to the story, but is an attempt to summarize it briefly without any obvious spoilers. Suffice it to say, the film is a legal drama with a gimmick (the military setting, rather than a more often used civilian court) that is actually interesting rather than droll. Again, the cast is the key to the film; and as Kaffee moves through the case, moving further and further from his innocent beginning, the story becomes more and more involving.
Unfortunately, this marvelous film has fallen victim to "early disc" syndrome. I suppose the DVD community should coin a term to refer to discs that were released prior to the point (sometime in mid '99) of most major studios beginning to take the DVD format seriously. Something catchy. In any event, A Few Good Men certainly is a disc released early that could stand the kind of attention Columbia TriStar has learned to lavish on current releases.
The video is anamorphic, and presented in 2.35:1 glory. Skin tones seem just a touch too ruddy, and some edges are a tad too fuzzy. But overall, this is a fairly solid video transfer. The problems I mention here are of the type only hardcore home theater-philes will alert to. This is a pretty recent film, and thus the print should be in excellent shape, and the transfer is generally good looking. But the studio could put out a much better version of this disc, easily. Even if they only revisit the transfers, it could be great, rather than merely good.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As an early disc, it is notably lacking in the kind of "standard extra content" most consumers can expect almost as a matter of course (biographical material, trailers, filmographies, et cetera…). However, A Few Good Men is positively sparse. The menus are extremely basic, and have almost nothing on them. The disc doesn't even include subtitle options in English (only Spanish subtitles, the chapter listings aren't very helpful, and cursor movement is coded in a manner that can result in confusion in trying to reach a control.
Further, the audio is weak. The packaging uses the unwelcomely nebulous term "Dolby Digital Surround," but I doubt it's a 5.1 track. The surrounds never hit, nor are any spatial effects detectable in the soundfield. Further, dialogue isn't at the fore of the sound mix, as it should be, especially for a dramatic film. Voices are hard to break out sometimes, and words slip away from the ears without being discerned. Some work is needed here.
A great film with a mediocre disc. Columbia TriStar has made tremendous strides with their discs since they first began releasing them. Hopefully, they'll have room in their release schedule for A Few Good Men to be revisited. Despite these problems, fans of the film should pick it up if they're without a good copy; owners of undamaged VHS or old laserdisc copies may want to try the "waiting for a Special Edition" game and hope it pays off. I'm rooting for the payoff, personally.
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