The Tom Cruise we were fascinated with in 1993 is not the Tom Cruise we are fascinated with today. Fresh off the critical and commercial success of A Few Good Men and married to Nicole Kidman, he was arguably the biggest movie star in the world, a fresh-faced kid who'd become an equally fresh-faced man-boy. He was a more digestible celebrity in those years before the Oprah incident, "Matt, you’re glib," and the bonkers horror show that is Going Clear. In many ways, 1993's The Firm, a legal thriller based on the best-selling novel by John Grisham, is the most snackable Tom Cruise film of all: aggressively familiar, momentarily enjoyable, and quickly forgotten.
But it's also weird. Really weird.
What exactly is so weird about Tom Cruise in The Firm? On the surface, not much. The movie’s plot doesn’t waver too much from the nine essential Cruise plot elements Roger Ebert laid out in his Days of Thunder review back in 1990. The Firm has a Mentor (played here by a game Gene Hackman), a Superior Woman (Jeanne Tripplehorn), a Craft (tax law), a Proto-Enemy (Ed Harris), and an Eventual Enemy (the firm itself!), all arriving at various points during the movie’s leisurely 154 minutes. But after multiple viewings, Cruise’s eccentricities as a performer rise to the surface. Some are small. Some are big. Some will cause you to question the nature of reality itself. Let's take a closer look.
He sweats too much
Everybody sweats -- even Tom Cruise. But isn’t it weird that a film about a law student opens with him drenched in Kevin Garnett levels of sweat out on the basketball court? This is the first image we get of Mitch McDeere, Cruise’s hot-shot lawyer character with an alliteration-happy Grisham name. The dialogue in this scene indicates he’s playing pick-up with an older professor, so again I ask: Why so much sweat? Chill, Maverick -- this isn’t beach volleyball.
After the opening basketball scene, things go swimmingly for Mitch. Sure, to pay those Harvard law bills, he has to tend bar, ride the bus to work, and wear ill-fitting suits to job interviews, but he's clearly moving up in the world. He's interviewing with all the top law firms and he's meeting with the mysterious Memphis firm Bendini, Lambert & Locke, which will soon make him an offer he can't refuse. This is all very normal. He even has a beautiful wife he buys Chinese food for, because in movie world there's no better shorthand for showing that someone is overworked than some white cartons of mu shu chicken.
Yep, for the first nine minutes, this is a pretty normal movie about a sweaty lawyer. And then this happens:
He does backflips with a kid on the street
WHAT WAS THAT? When I first saw this scene, I felt like the movie had just ripped off one of those Mission: Impossible face masks and revealed its true backflip-loving self. Seriously, what the hell? After the shock wore off, I felt betrayed: How come no one ever told me The Firm was a sick movie in which Tom Cruise does backflips on the streets with the youth of Memphis? What kind of garbage friends do I have who made me think this movie was some sub-par Pelican Brief knock-off? I took the DVD out and checked to see if I had rented the "extra backflips" special edition. Nope, just the plain old movie.
Let's pause and think about how a scene like this ends up in a big Hollywood studio film based on a best-selling John Grisham novel. Is it in the book? Don’t think so. Do you think the director of the film, Oscar-winner Sydney Pollack, was like, "We need to get to know Mitch better as a character here -- how about a couple of backflips?" Unlikely. Was co-writer Robert Towne perched over his typewriter smoking a cigarette, wiping sweat from his brow and musing to himself, "Chinatown was pretty dope, but it would've been a lot better if Jack Nicholson had done some backflips after he got his nose cut!" Probably not.
The scene smells of Cruise tampering. It’s so easy to picture him pitching that scene in some point in the production. And speaking of smells, are those ribs?
He eats ribs
Maybe I’m in the minority on this, but I think it’s unnerving to see Tom Cruise eat ribs. He seems like he’d be more into vegetables, like his spiritual guide L. Ron Hubbard. Following the ribs shot, the movie has an almost meta-moment where Mitch's wife voices some of her concerns about the firm employees’ odd behavior and southern-fried BBQ manners. "I don't mind square," she says. "I like square. Weird, I mind." Mitch, in all his shaggy dog Tom Cruise earnestness, looks up at her and says, "Weird? What do you mean weird?"
Note: That is an actual line of dialogue in the movie. I did not make it up for this piece.
He laughs like a crazy person
He's driving in car with his wife after a lawyer from the firm has died in a mysterious accident and he makes a joke about horses that is so lame I can't bear to type it all out for you here. It's a dad joke most dads would dismiss as hack. But, hey, we've all made lame jokes to break the tension. Not weird. You know what is weird? Laughing like an evil demon.
He wears a sexy pirate shirt
Sartorially, The Firm isn’t peak Cruise fashion. It can’t touch the brilliant '80s excess of Cocktail or the shirt-with-your-name-on-it perfection of The Color Of Money. But it does have this billowy white number which makes it look like Mitch wandered off the set of Captain Ron.
He has sex on a beach with a woman with a sprained ankle
Given the cringe-worthy conceit of this scene, the writers actually do a decent job of justifying why Cruise’s character would cheat on his beautiful, kind, school-teacher wife with a prostitute who just sprained her ankle after fighting off her boyfriend. (In one of the movie’s more outlandish twists, she ends up being a plant put there by the firm to seduce Cruise.)
He shakes hands with Gary Busey
For a couple brief, glorious scenes, The Firm turns into a Coen Brothers film. You've got Gary Busey as a private investigator named Eddie Lomax who used to share a prison cell with Mitch’s convict brother (played by character actor extraordinaire David Strathairn). You’ve got Holly Hunter as Busey’s flirtatious secretary. You’ve got Tobin Bell from Saw playing a mulleted hitman right out of The Big Lebowski. You’ve got all the ingredients for an excellent hillbilly crime noir. Too bad Busey gets shot in the next couple scenes. RIP, Eddie Lomax. In my mind, you are the star of this movie.
He attacks his wife with whispers
We all know Tom Cruise can YELL A LOT. But did you know he can whisper? Shhhh… He can.
He fights a copy machine
The Firm is a tremendous movie about how tedious making copies can be. Like the paranoid 1970s thrillers it occasionally emulates, the movie has an uneasy and inscrutable relationship with technology. Characters are constantly worried that they are being recorded or photographed, but the good guys in the film use these methods just as much as the bad guys do, perhaps more so. At one point, Cruise records an explicit threat from Ed Harris’s FBI agent character and threatens to blackmail him with the recording. In fact, the movie’s convoluted climax is centered around mail fraud and making copies, suggesting that controlling the tools of bureaucracy may be the key to acquiring power. But, yeah, in this scene, Tom Cruise punches a copy machine because he’s trying to put his plan in motion.
He becomes too sad to do backflips
What’s Chekhov’s rule about the gun? If there’s a rifle hanging on the wall in the first act, it must go off in the second act. It’s the same thing with Tom Cruise movies and backflips. If Tom Cruise does a happy backflip with a child in the first act, there must come a point in the second act where he sees the same child doing backflips but is now too sad to take part in the fun. That’s just storytelling 101.
He runs past flowers
Now we’re talking. You know things are about to get weird in a Tom Cruise movie when he starts running through ornately decorated law firm offices. Look at him go! He’s powered by Xenu!
He almost knocks over an old lady
Watch out you old bag! TC is on the move! He can’t be stopped! Praise Xenu.
He jumps out a window onto a truck full of cotton
Nothing better than the old cotton truck trick. The bad guys never see it coming.
He kicks Hank from Breaking Bad in the knee
Speaking of bad guys, Dean Norris has small part in the film as "the Squat Man," one of the hitmen sent to track down Cruise. He doesn’t get to do as much talking as Hank used to do on Breaking Bad, but he does get beat up and then shot at the end in a standoff, so there are some Hank-like moments here. I don’t know why Tom Cruise chooses to kick him here when he could’ve just him with his briefcase. It’s almost like they were saving the briefcase for something...
He beats up Wilford Brimley with a briefcase
Oh, damn. That’s not only weird -- it’s cold. But to Mitch McDeere, it's the right thing to do. Here we find out that Mitch is capable of annihilating the dude from Cocoon with a briefcase. The movie goes on for about another 20 minutes after this scene and Paul Sorvino shows up as a mobster, maybe just so this movie could reach some sort of “that guy” actor quota. But the briefcase scene is the real climax of the movie. Briefcases play a special role in Tom Cruise’s filmography as anyone who has seen Michael Mann’s Collateral can attest. In that 2004 neo-noir, Cruise utters the iconic line, “Yo homie, is that my briefcase?” He then shoots the man who took said briefcase in head. Back in 1993, Cruise wasn’t that ruthless yet. He wasn’t going to let his freak flag fly quite so high, but, if you look at him beating up Wilford Brimley, you can see it fluttering in the wind.
He looks like a zombie by the end
Even after taking on the FBI, the Chicago mob and a firm of creepy Southern lawyers, Mitch McDeere still wants to practice law. He still believes in what’s right. And, honestly, I understand his perseverance. Even after all the bizarre things Tom Cruise has done, I still believe in him.
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Dan Jackson is a Staff Writer at Thrillist Entertainment and is really hungry for ribs after watching this movie. He's on Twitter at @danielvjackson.