By Marc S. Sanders
Sydney Pollack was the first director to take a crack at adapting one of John Grisham’s best-selling books, namely the still most popular novel, The Firm. Wisely, and with a measure of risk, Pollack took the script from David Rabe, Robert Towne and David Rayfiel and maintained a true adaptation for the first hour of the film while inventing a new kind of second half that I think improves upon Grisham’s story.
Mitchell McDeere (a well cast Tom Cruise) is the most sought after Harvard law graduate in the country. A small Tennessee firm makes an offer to him that outbids any of the big leaguers. Considering that Mitch comes from a poor broken home with a brother (David Strathairn) currently in jail for manslaughter, the offer and treatment given to Mitch and his school teacher wife Abby (Jeanne Tripplehorn) could not be more enticing. A house, a car, school loan payoffs, and a near six figure salary in the first year is not something anyone would walk away from.
Once the happy, young couple are comfortable though, a curious FBI man (Ed Harris, an MVP of this stellar cast) inquires if Mitch finds it odd that this firm has four of its lawyers dead within the last ten years. The two most recent casualties perished in a boat accident.
The sharp minded Avery Tolar (another welcome performance from Gene Hackman) is assigned to make sure Mitch follows the path the firm expects of him. Avery also has his sights set on Abby. For a guy who has never been regarded as good looking, Hackman plays a pretty effective flirt.
The firm, led by a seasoned Hal Holbrook with a charming Mark Twain like bow tie, and a perfect henchman villain played by Wilford Brimley (definitely on my top list of best bad guys) are involved with the Mafia and their shady dealings of money laundering, racketeering, murder and embezzlement. Now Mitch is stuck.
The FBI want to use him to uncover the firm’s activities but that risks blowing his career and maybe his and Abby’s life. If he doesn’t cooperate, then the Feds will run him in with the rest of the gang.
A second hour focuses on a complicated way for Mitch to get out of this ordeal. It means a lot of white collar work and contrived timing in the script. Fortunately though, Pollack builds suspense with foot chases and some allies on Mitch’s side, including Holly Hunter as an hourglass figured, bombshell secretary to a private investigator (Gary Busey) that Mitch went to see. His plan involves traveling to and from the Cayman Islands, and making copies of legal documents to build evidence of mail fraud against the firm.
Mail fraud???? That’s right mail fraud. It’s not a sexy crime, but the script with Pollack’s direction and a hard pounding piano soundtrack from Dave Grusin manage to keep the suspense up and alert.
Pollack directs Cruise to sprint across downtown Nashville for some great sights and hideouts in broad daylight. Your adrenaline moves with the film even if you can’t connect all the dots of Mitch’s complex plan.
In fact, it’s best to just give up on following every little step Mitch and his team take to stay ahead of the firm. What works best is the seemingly no win scenario for Mitch and Abby. Pollack follows a Hitchcock trajectory. He leaves the bomb on the table but doesn’t detonate it right away. Thus the suspense holds steady.
So, the best kind of counsel I can give is to just enjoy The Firm as it runs through its paces. It’s a solid white-collar thriller.