You know your thoughts are wilting when you begin to write about two completely unrelated films; this week I will be reviewing A Few Good Men and The Departed. If at some point I begin to desperately discuss similarities between the movies (which there aren’t, apart from more wacky Jack Nicholson characters…that’s right, wacky) feel free to stop reading immediately as this is a review, not a comparison.
Actually no don’t. Please read it. Even if you haven’t seen the films, reading this article should encourage you to…
The truth is that the two films were instant classics, with A Few Good Men nominated for Best Picture at the 1992 Academy Awards, and The Departed winning Best Picture in 2006. To say they are two of my favourite films seems a bit easy, but by golly they are impressive.
I’m not a huge fan of action movies with exploding helicopters flying over a man impenetrable to bullets (apart from the mere 22 Bond films) so to see Tom Cruise in a court-room drama is somewhat refreshing, regardless of the film’s inaccuracy of the U.S. Court System…yeah I went there.
Cruise fighting the establishment for the good of the people is a common theme in his multi-billion dollar film repertoire and A Few Good Men is no exception. Cruise appears very accomplished at playing a cocky, smarmy prat; something I believe he manages in many films. Scenes where he appears like a distracted school-child, a vacant sports jock or simply the typical ‘drunk-movie-character-in-moment-of-weakness’ suggest Lt. Kaffee should be one of the most annoying characters in film; he definitely eats an apple in the most obnoxious way I’ve seen anyone eat an apple.
Therefore it is credit to the writers (of what was initially a play) that Cruise’s character is still seen as the film’s protagonist. Certainly his cross-examination of Sgt. Jessop is heroic and Cruise’s character appears very strong, quick-witted and fearless.
The rest of the cast has its moments too. A young Kevin Bacon gives an understated performance as the “lousy fucking softball player”/prosecutor (Kev is fantastic in The Following by the way, worth a watch, it’s better than Broadchurch…).
Although she also plays a slightly annoying character, Demi Moore is very good in her role as Lt. Galloway. Where usually a female character would weaken the plot, with the writers making them feeble and susceptible to falling in love, Moore’s character is strong-willed and not faint-hearted; but that doesn’t mean she deserves a state funeral (…) Kevin Pollak and Kiefer Sutherland are also very convincing in their respective roles.
What is so good about the film is that it rarely gets distracted from the main storyline, if you wanted to watch a court-room drama (how exciting!) then this is exactly what that is. At one point in the film Cruise, after a drunken argument with Demi Moore, races after her in the rain and you would expect the string orchestra to rise to prominence while the two romantically kiss. But this doesn’t happen, and there are no distractions from the main issue, the freedom of two marines is not shunned and there are no relationship tensions and sub-plots.
The dialogue throughout A Few Good Men is among the best in film history and this must be due to the fact it was initially written as a play. Clearly a courtroom drama must be content driven, but if it wasn’t for the meaty, powerful moments of monologue or dialogue with stone cold deliveries, the film would be another sub-standard film – instead it is up alongside To Kill a Mockingbird as the best courtroom dramas of all time.
A Few Good Men does have its cheesy moments, from Cruise’s measly attempts of humour, the orchestra’s corny, dated score and various references to Cruise living up to his father’s will. These do release the pressure to an extent and, in my opinion, weaken the great intensity shown in the rest of the film. But I guess they must have done something right if it was dominated for a Best Picture, whatevs.
I don’t quite know where to start with The Departed. Almost every facet of the film is impervious to criticism. The ensemble is, and this is saying something, far superior to that in A Few Good Men. Of course, Matt Damon is unsurprisingly solid in his role, playing the ultimate douchebag that is Colin Sullivan; and as good as Damon is, this is nothing compared to Leonardo Di Caprio’s performance. For a character that goes through such emotion and has a generally depressing life with no true family, there is nobody around that could have been more convincing as Di Caprio. I mean come on there is actual pain behind his eyes, maybe he’s sad that he’s not viewed as the best actor around because of Daniel-bloody-Day Lewis.
Martin Sheen and Mark Wahlberg’s performances and characters complement each other perfectly, with Wahlberg donning the effing and blinding nasty-but-good-guy persona with a few comedic appearances/lines and Sheen posing as the calming influence on the undercover police force. Then there’s the classic Ray Winstone cockney henchman character who is menacing and fearsome but you still half expect him to pop up and say “England to score next 5/1, laaarvely have a bang on that”.
This isn’t even mentioning the likes of Alec Baldwin and Vera Farmiga who top the ensemble and make it one of the greatest, or at least most recognisable, of all time. This is not to say all their Bostonian accents were a joy to the ears, as they weren’t, and this can be distracting from the realism of the film, reminding you that they’re all just actors. But the accents must have been stressed upon as there appears to be a great need to iterate that the film is set in Boston.
In what amounts to the film’s climax, the Bostonian theme, as well as the film’s huge tension is further instilled by the Irish ‘I’m Shipping up to Boston’. The rest of the soundtrack does not disappoint either, further evidence of Scorsese’s ability to compile some great, appropriate mood-setting songs to finish off a brilliant film.
Di Caprio’s cap, the monuments, the accents, the Harvard t-shirt and the music all point to the setting of Boston. This is to stress that the film is based on a true story, and to ensure it maintains its identity with its influential story, to heighten the fact this is a genuine story and to bring the Hollywood-influenced moments back down to earth. It adds to the fascination that the story brings, that such a cat and mouse (or rat) story can be so true is almost unbelievable. That’s what made Argo work, the fact that such an unbelievable, outrageous story actually happened gives it that much more…oomph.
My more observant readers will have noticed I have not discussed Jack Nicholson yet. I suppose he is one of the few constants between the two films, but also I think that, despite the efforts of Di Caprio and Cruise, Nicholson is a class above everyone else (acting-wise, not socially). In both films he is totally convincing as the evil character he plays. Be this the patriotic, dead-pan, stern sergeant in A Few Good Men, who towers over others, delivers calm, heat-fuelled monologues and must be the most intimidating person ever; or the sleazy, animated mafia boss in The Departed, whose descent into madness, whose menacing grins and ruthlessness make him one of the craziest mafia leaders in film history. Essentially we see more of what we have done before; those teeth that are so often on show in The Shining and the sense of the calm before the storm in the same film are repeated so much in these masterpieces. Without such performances neither film would have achieved the great status they have, and they certainly would not have got… (IMDB Ratings: A Few Good Men 9/10, The Departed 9/10).