Cashing in on the popularity of young novelist John Grisham, The Firm became the first - and, in my opinion, the best - of nine film adaptations of his books, the last being, of course, 2004's Christmas With the Kranks...?!
Opening in the summer of 1993, The Firm was an immediate hit with audiences, many of whom likely saw it multiple times out of devotion to Tom Cruise at the peak of his career. Critics weren't as kind as Joe and Jane Public, and even the few who praised the film complained about its 154-minute running time. In his middling review, Vincent Canby of the New York Times said it was "so slow that by the end you feel as if you've been standing up even if you've been sitting down." Rick Groen of the The Globe and Mail was more blunt: "it's long, it's cluttered, and it's trite."
Maybe it's long, but cluttered and trite? Well, not anymore than Grisham's novels were. That you could tell any of them apart in the first place was an accomplishment to be proud of, but that fact somehow never prevented me from picking up his "new" book every year. So why would the public reaction to the film adaptation be any different? Like all of Grisham's stories, The Firm offered a likable character in the midst of a struggle (Mitch McDeere), nasty villains out for blood (the partners at the firm), a sympathetic antihero (Avery Tolar), and colorful supporting characters (Tammy Hemphill and Eddie Lomax). The late director Sydney Pollack knew that it couldn't be considered "too long" if he was faithful to the novel, since viewers, like voracious readers, would follow the story intently to the end (Owen Gleiberman of EW even admitted, "The problem isn't so much that we can't deduce what's going on as that we aren't given time to enjoy it.").
But therein lies one minor problem: Pollack wasn't very faithful to the book. All of the characters were still in place but their motivations were different and the ending was accordingly changed. Instead of McDeere being a shrewd, morally unpredictable hotshot who retires to the Caribbean, he became in the movie a kind of Boy Scout, returning to Boston to presumably begin a career in pro-bono work for a nonprofit firm. This grated on a few critics ("Very little of what made the written version so enjoyable has been successfully translated to the screen," complained James Berardinelli), but I was fine with it. As with Jurassic Park later that summer, I found myself able to enjoy the entertainment value of both the novel and the book, despite their obvious differences.
Even conceding the issues with the length and the complaints about the modified plot, the one aspect of the movie that cannot be criticized is the acting. This is a top-notch cast firing all cylinders, completely committing to their characters in a movie that they must have known wouldn't receive award consideration. Tom Cruise gives one of his best performances as McDeere as he allows himself to explore a range of emotions apart from his typical pride and tenacity. He churns one of these out every 2-3 years (and he's due now, the last one being Collateral), but this is one of my favorites because it came during a time when he knew could have just as easily taken any action or romantic comedy script.
The supporting cast was terrific as well, notably Gene Hackman and Jeanne Tripplehorn (what happened to her?), but also Ed Harris and Hal Holbrook. Holly Hunter was good enough to earn a Best Supporting Actress nomination for her work as Mitch's confidante Tammy Hemphill (she would later win Best Actress that year for The Piano), and don't forget memorable roles played by David Strathairn, Wilford Brimley, and Gary Busey.
Not to be thought of as an important movie from the 90's or a symbolic indictment of the American legal system, The Firm is good enough as it is: a commercial suspense thriller with great entertainment value and a star-studded cast. I would take that over a self-important (Michael Clayton) message movie (Michael Clayton) with cheap suspense (Michael Clayton) any day.