Division In The Ranks -- `A Few Good Men': It's Nicholson Vs. Cruise In A Military Showdown

XXX 1/2 "A Few Good Men," with Tom Cruise, Jack Nicholson, Demi Moore, Kevin Pollak, Kevin Bacon, Kiefer Sutherland, and J.T. Walsh. Directed by Rob Reiner. Screenplay by Aaron Sorkin, based on his play. Cinerama, Northgate, Lewis & Clark, Kirkland Parkplace, Alderwood, Crossroads, SeaTac 12 South, Factoria, Kent 6. "R" - restricted, due to profanity, subject matter. --------------------------------------------------------------- Pitting Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson against each other is about as close as you can come to guaranteed entertainment. "A Few Good Men" also has the pedigree of its initial success as an acclaimed Broadway play, and director Rob Reiner has the reputation and skill necessary to nurture a first-rate conversion to the big screen.

The film's entire cast and crew prove up to the task, and there's something both comfortably old-fashioned (right up to the now rare closing title "The End") and blazingly contemporary about Aaron Sorkin's screenplay, which according to the playwright is an improvement on his original work.

The makings of a riveting courtroom drama are intensified by its military context, beginning with the murder of a fledgling Marine stationed on base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. After threatening to report the on-duty infraction of a fellow soldier, the young Marine had fallen victim to an unsanctioned punishment called a "Code Red," and the two Marines held responsible are put on trial.

Defending them in military court is a sharp, hotshot Navy lawyer named Kaffee (a role tailor-made for Cruise) who is barely a year out of Harvard and struggling to emerge from the long shadow of his father's stellar legal reputation. Reckless but eager to prove himself, Kaffee is whipped into shape by his Navy defense supervisor (Demi Moore) until he realizes he's being set up as a stooge who is expected to plea-bargain without noticing the case's true significance.

Fat chance. The scent of the crime leads to a righteous, fundamentalist Marine lieutenant (Kiefer Sutherland) and his commanding officer, Col. Jessep (Nicholson). With further assistance by his defense partner (Kevin Pollak) and a "Deep Throat"-like officer close to the case (J.T. Walsh), Kaffee prepares for a courtroom showdown during which the definitions of honor and duty are put to an extreme test.

It's volatile stuff, energized by traditional inter-service rivalries, and Sorkin's vividly plotted details are nicely balanced with dialogue that springs from the heightened reality of a Hollywood-ized star vehicle while remaining authentic. The case's intense focus nicely restrains the expected Moore-Cruise romance, which is clearly implied through their witty love-hate banter, but not at the expense of the tightly wound story.

Though still clearly a play-turned-film, "A Few Good Men" has been cautiously and effectively "opened up" by Reiner and cinematographer Robert Richardson (Oliver Stone's regular cameraman), whose virtuosity is most evident within the confines of the courtroom, where delicate camera moves and impeccable editing turn this into a tinderbox trial favorably comparable to "The Caine Mutiny."

Whereas Bogart was a nervous, paranoid wreck in that film, Nicholson is utterly explosive, a cornered pit bull convinced that his power - and his conviction regarding national defense - supersedes all higher truths. Sorkin's precise writing allows Nicholson to do what may be his best dramatic work since (dare I say it?) "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." It's a bonus that his climactic speech is provocative and thematically potent, but the supreme pleasure lies in witnessing a master at the peak of his craft.

It's scenery-chewing, to be sure, and Cruise gets his own chance to hog the spotlight in powerhouse scenes that merely enhance the vitality of his best previous roles. It's Cruise's movie, and his All-American flash makes it easy to ignore his character's instant and unlikely transformation into a courtroom ace. This kind of maneuvering (which duly impresses the prosecuting attorney, nicely played by Kevin Bacon) takes years of trial experience, but hey, this is a movie, remember? Just go with the flow, and leave the minor faults to the nitpickers.