'A Few Good Men' is a film that dares to ask the question, "Can you handle the truth?" And no, I don't just mean that as a campy allusion to the movie's most famous line. For here is an old-fashioned, unabashedly idealistic courtroom drama that not only manages to avoid the most hackneyed conventions of its genre but also pointedly says something about US military policy, and the elastic nature of political truth in general. 'A Few Good Men' is a true anomaly in today's Hollywood -- a thinking person's movie that works both as a mainstream commercial crowd-pleaser and as a legitimate artistic statement.
Anyone reading this probably already knows the film's plot. Tom Cruise (still in the fresh-faced, thirtysomething years of his career) is perfectly cast as brash Navy lawyer Lt. Daniel Kaffee, who's teamed with a gung-ho litigator Lt. Cdr. JoAnne Galloway (Demi Moore) in a politically explosive murder case. The military, hoping the case will just go away quietly (and perhaps choosing to lose the trial in order to save face), puts these novices well in above their heads by having them defend two Marines accused of killing a fellow soldier under direct naval order. As they deconstruct the case and uncover startling new facts, the duo is confronted with complex issues of loyalty and honor, including the military's most sacred code -- and its most fervent protector, the high-ranking Col. Nathan R. Jessep (Jack Nicholson). Can these two ambitious young upstarts win an seemingly unwinnable case?
'A Few Good Men' was written by Aaron Sorkin, who is certainly no stranger to the US politics and government, given his success with hits on both the big-screen ('The American President') and the small one ('The West Wing'). But it's to his credit that, in adapting his own stageplay for the screen, Sorkin expands the size and scope of his story without sacrificing its inherent drama. Yes, at times 'A Few Good Men' may teeter precariously on the brink of being an extended episode of 'Law & Order' meets 'NCIS,' but Sorkin never lets it fall over the edge. Helped immensely by an absolutely first-rate cast and Rob Reiner's impassioned direction (this may be his best work, next to 'This is Spinal Tap'), 'A Few Good Men' is able to side-step just about all of the pitfalls of most modern big-screen courtroom dramas and instead harken back to the true greats. No, this is not quite in the same league as 'To Kill a Mockingbird,' but at least 'A Few Good Men' aspires to the same standard of excellence.
Throughout the film's perfectly-paced 138 minutes, Reiner and Sorkin rarely step wrong in balancing the personal story of the young idealistic Kaffee with the military-thriller aspects of the flick. Each new piece of the puzzle is revealed at exactly the right moment so we are never too far behind (or in front) of our heroes, with the revelations almost consistently paying off emotionally because Sorkin clearly delineates how each affects Kaffee. There are two parallel stories here, neither fighting each other for time but instead together turning 'A Few Good Men' into more than the sum of its parts. Sorkin uses every trick in the mystery-thriller playbook in shaping his biting critique of outdated notions of false honor and misguided loyalty (Nicholson is particularly terrific here in turning Jessep into a towering testament to American Military arrogance), but creates the perfect counterpoint with Kaffee's character arc, as he realizes (and the audience is reassured) that idealism can triumph even after naivete is lost.
Lest anyone think that 'A Few Good Men' is simply another grating, liberal Hollywood in-your-face polemic, the film was a genuine blockbuster because it's really far more fun that its plot might suggest. At its core, 'A Few Good Men' is a grand popcorn picture with some truly powerhouse performances -- in fact, the actors themselves seem barely able to contain their glee as they tear into each other in the film's courtroom scenes. Which, of course, is nowhere more evident than in the now-infamous confrontation scene between Cruise and Nicholson. For those who haven't seen it, I won't spoil how the iconic line "You can't handle the truth!" is finally used in the picture, other than to say it is ultimately indicative of what makes 'A Few Good Men' so darn good. The film delivers thematically and politically on the many layers of implication inherent in that statement, but at the same time can be enjoyed simply as a tour-de-force thrill ride of old-style craftsmanship, stirring melodrama and A-list mega-stars at the top of their game. Big studio Hollywood filmmaking doesn't get much better than this one.
'A Few Good Men' enjoys a superlative transfer from Sony -- this is the kind of top-tier video I hope for whenever I rip open a new catalog title on high-def.
The film's gorgeous and classy cinematography is done full justice by this 1080p/MPEG-2 encode, which is presented properly in the film's original 2.35:1 theatrical aspect ratio. The source is immaculate with not a single blemish to be found. Blacks are nice and inky, and contrast is bright and eye-popping, yet consistent across the entire grayscale so that the image is never less than perfectly smooth and natural. Depth and detail are subsequently luscious, delivering the kind of three-dimensional presentation that offers a noticeable and considerable improvement over the standard-def release.
The golden-hued visuals are also wonderfully rendered by the excellent color palette, which is spot-on. Every hue is perfectly saturated and balanced, and fleshtones are ideal. Grain and noise are not apparent, nor or any compression artifacts. I also did not notice any discernible edge enhancement or issues with halos.
Alas, I do have one small nitpick. There appears to be some slight waving to the source -- for example, in the scene where Demi Moore's character first visits the military for an interview, you can see a fluctuation of brightness on her face. To be sure, it's hardly severe -- and likely not noticeable on smaller screens -- but it happens often enough throughout 'A Few Good Men' that I'm forced to knock down the Video rating a half-star. Still, it ultimately doesn't prevent me from giving this one a very big, hearty thumbs up overall -- this a truly wonderful video transfer.
Sony offers up another one of their standard uncompressed PCM 5.1 Surround tracks for 'A Few Good Men,' and it easily handles the demands of the film's so-so sound design. I didn't find the movie's soundtrack to be as compelling as its visuals, though considering the talky nature of the film, that's to be expected.
Tech specs are certainly up to snuff. Dialogue is the most important element of the mix and it is finely detailed, always intelligible and perfectly balanced in the mix. The other prominent feature is the polished score by Marc Shaiman, which alternates between a classical Hollywood melodrama type of arrangement and more modern, driving percussion. This, too, nicely built up in the mix, and the sense of tone and warmth is excellent.
Where the film's sound design falls flat is, predictably, with the lack of envelopment. With so many courtroom scenes and so little in terms of action, there just isn't much for the surrounds to do -- discrete effects are minor, and there is precious little hint of even subtle atmosphere. As a result, this may as well be a stereo mix, making it hard to get all that excited about this soundtrack, however nicely rendered it may be. Make no mistake -- overall this track's perfectly acceptable, just not particularly noteworthy.
'A Few Good Men' finally received the special edition treatment on standard-def DVD back in 2001, and it was a solid if not exemplary package. Sony has not added anything new to the mix for the film's Blu-ray debut (nor even upgraded the video, which is presented here in 480i/MPEG-2 only), but it's still an entertaining look into the making of the film, even if it's only truly insightful in fits and starts.
Things kick off with a solo screen-specific audio commentary with director Rob Reiner. Unfortunately, the results are rather mediocre. Reiner is usually an affable guy (we're talking about the man who played "Meathead," after all), so I was really surprised by how dull and lifeless he is on this track. There are frequent and long gaps of silence -- either there was an unheard interviewer whose questions have been edited out, or Reiner was taking catnaps. When the director does speak, it's generally only in short bursts, usually to congratulate the actors, offer slim on-set stories or a few minor technical asides (largely on the cinematography). Alas, this is just not a great commentary, and can be skipped by all but the most devoted fans of Reiner.
Considerably better are the two included featurettes. "Code of Conduct" runs 35 minutes, and features both Reiner and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin in fresh interviews (well, they were new at the time of the DVD's special edition release), along with actors Kevin Bacon, Kiefer Sutherland, James Marshall, Wolfgang Bodison, Kevin Pollack, Christopher Guest and Noah Wyle. Sadly, Tom Cruise and Demi Moore appear only in EPK snippets produced at the time of the film's release, and Jack Nicholson is completely absent. Overall, this one's a fairly good behind-the-scenes peek at the production, even if it is focused largely on the acting and directing. Again, though, Reiner strangely recedes to the background with his banal comments, so it is Sorkin who ends up being the most fascinating. Speaking of Sorkin, the screenwriter takes centerstage in the the second featurette, the 14-minute "From Stage to Screen." Speaking fast and comprehensively about all of the main beats of the story and its inspiration, Sorkin's comments here are trult fascinating, and made me wish he'd gotten an audio commentary all his own.
Not only is 'A Few Good Men' a tightly plotted, smartly directed courtroom drama, but it boasts a top-notch cast including a now-classic performance by Jack Nicholson. This Blu-ray release delivers handily on all fronts, including a top tier transfer, solid soundtrack and some fine (if still too slim) supplements, making it an easy recommend for all.