Before Tom Cruise Saved Action Movies, He Kick-Started the Legal Thriller

In the ’90s, all Cruise needed to take down a villain was a fax machine.

Paramount Pictures
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Hundreds of years from now, historians will think the people of the 1990s considered it an unforgivable faux pas to board an airplane without a John Grisham novel in their possession.

That would help them explain Grisham’s staggering success. His legal thrillers dominated airport bookstores, regular bookstores, grocery and drugstore bookracks, library shelves, retirement homes. “Airport read” can be derisive, but Grisham’s legal career and stint as a member of Mississippi’s House of Representatives brought verisimilitude to his tales of corrupt judges and criminal schemes.

Over 300 million sales followed. Grisham was a living license to print money, which soon led to a steady stream of movie adaptations. The Client was a hit that earned Susan Sarandon an Academy Award nomination, and A Time to Kill was a shot in the arm to Samuel L. Jackson’s post-Pulp Fiction career. But it all began with The Firm. Hollywood’s first Grisham adaptation, based on his first bestseller, needed a star worthy of the burgeoning brand. Originally conceived as a modest vessel worthy of Charlie Sheen, its budget and ambitions grew until Sydney Pollack was behind the camera and only one man was fit to stand in front of it. Enter Tom Cruise.

Cruise’s career is generally split into the part where he was a serious actor and the part where he dangles from helicopters, airplanes, and unusually tall buildings. The former is best remembered in movies like A Few Good Men and Rain Man, but with Cruise about to release his danglingest movie yet, it’s worth remembering that the man could act, even when the material around him was a little shaky.

In The Firm, Cruise is Mitch McDeere, a hotshot Harvard law graduate who turns down job offers from big New York firms in favor of a small Memphis-based office. They throw money, perks, and praise at McDeere, who’s enticed by their insistence that associates are treated like family. Then it turns out their family is the family, as in Chicago organized crime.

The firm hires eagers neophytes, lets them luxuriate in their new lifestyle, then reveals the truth. Anyone who tries to leave is blackmailed or meets a mysterious demise. But the FBI is interested in McDeere too; the firm is on their radar, but they need a man on the inside. If McDeere risks his life and career for them, his imprisoned brother could benefit at his next parole meeting. But if he says no, they’ll find another rat and McDeere can join his brother in the clink. It’s all a lot to handle, especially once his wife (Jeanne Tripplehorn) and a secretary out for revenge (Holly Hunter) get involved.

Gene Hackman’s droopy dog lawyer orients Cruise in the legal world while lusting after his wife.

Paramount Pictures

The Firm is overlong and overplotted; by the time Hunter’s Elvis-impersonating cuckold husband shows up to help, you get the sense that 20 minutes could have been shaved off. But this is Cruise’s movie, and his manic energy keeps you invested. It’s not exactly a stretch to buy the 31-year-old Cruise as young and ambitious, and when the conspiracy begins to open up before his wild eyes, he makes us root for a petulant man who only does the right thing once he realizes there’s no easy way to worm out. It’s fun to watch Cruise and Hunter’s scheme unspool, and we get brief glimpses of the action hero that Cruise would become.

Hunter and composer Dave Grusin earned Oscar nominations, and Cruise enjoyed a wealth of critical praise. The Washington Post’s Joe Brown was typical in noting that Cruise was “born to play company man, and the role is an opportunity to sum up his old roles and transcend them with his most potently emotional work.” It’s not exactly Shakespeare, but Cruise wrang enough emotion out of McDeere’s marital woes to prove he was no longer a one-note heartthrob. Then, not long after kick-starting the legal thriller genre, he would star in Mission: Impossible and begin his long journey to action movie savior.

Aside from Cruise, The Firm is a delightful parade of “Hey, it’s that guy!” Dean Norris and Tobin Bell are glowering hitmen, Ed Harris is a tough FBI agent, Gary Busey is a manic private detective with two brief but memorable scenes, and Wilford Brimley, the firm’s head of security, fights Cruise in the biggest cinematic mismatch since xenomorph versus squishy spacemen. Gene Hackman, in a larger role, plays McDeere’s charming but bitter drunk of a mentor, and his quiet despair is a good foil to Cruise’s wide-eyed energy. It’s all a solid excuse to mix yourself a martini and take a long lunch.

The Firm is a popcorn movie at heart, but Cruise and Tripplehorn keep you invested in the fate of their marriage.

Paramount Pictures

On The Firm’s 20th anniversary, Grantland argued the legal thriller was on life support, both because later Grisham adaptations bombed and because of the broader demise of the midbudget adult drama. That we would bet a million dollars on you being unaware of The Firm’s 2012 TV adaptation is proof enough of the genre’s collapse. Grisham’s star has faded too; he’s not exactly a has-been, but we’re probably not getting a big-budget take on Theodore Boone: Kid Lawyer anytime soon.

A decade after Grantland’s prognosis, The Firm has sunk further into obscurity but is still a reminder of what we’re missing. It used a modest budget, smart casting, and a wisp of action to deliver a profitable, crowd-pleasing thriller. It’s silly, but it works. And as awesome as Cruise’s work on the Mission: Impossible series has been, it’s nice to remember that we used to let stars like him outsmart their opponents instead of just shoot them.

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