FILM / All present and correct: A Few Good Men and Almodovar's Labyrinth of Passion

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The Independent Culture
You realise very soon into A Few Good Men, a barnstorming courtroom drama that lays most of its cards on the table early in the game, that Jack Nicholson is a bad 'un. It's not that he is caught telling a point-blank lie about one of the case's central events. It's not his brusque crew- cut and menacing manner. It is well before he goes apeshit in court (in one of those small but significant movie scenes that seems to say to Oscar 'Give this man a Best Supporting Actor Nomination'). It is at the moment when he levels his lizard squint full on to Tom Cruise and discourses long and lewdly on the peculiar pleasures of sex with a senior female officer. Not just any old sex, mind, but the kind that would require her to kneel before him. 'There is nothing on earth sexier than a woman you have to salute in the morning,' he leers.

Ostensibly the film is about something else altogether: it grips a series of big issues - patriotism, justice, accountability - by the throat without, however, squeezing too much out of any of them. Nicholson is the Colonel of a marine base in Cuba, where a murder has been committed. It emerges, amid many a portentous allusion to a mysterious 'Code Red', that rough justice is in play - sadistic unofficial punishment inflicted on a soldier by his peers and condoned, or even commanded, by their superior officers.

Nicholson maintains that this is admissible - the Marines are, after all, practically living in a war zone; they are constantly putting their lives on the line. 'We live in a world with walls and these walls have to be guarded by men with guns,' he thunders. These bits of dialogue have a clunky Cold War ring to them, as though the Bay of Pigs were only yesterday and the last three years had never happened. The liberal view is finally vindicated - it's wrong to place oneself above the law, whatever the pressures - but weakly enough not to ruffle the hawks in the audience. It's not the military, with its arcane and archaic moral codes, that we see in the dock but the one bad apple.

And anyway that is not the film's real theme: like many courtroom dramas it is less interested in the issues or the poor devils in the dock (who are particularly ill-drawn here) than in the attorney battling for their fates. This is Cruise: he's the bright but irresponsible young blood who is picked to handle the case. He lives in the shadow of his late father, also a celebrated navy lawyer, and, rather than measure up against him in court, has acquired a reputation for skilful plea-bargaining. It's expected that he will come to a quiet compromise that will effectively hush up the case. So it's the full Oedipal works, corny as that: Cruise must brave it out in court and lay his father's ghost so as to come to maturity. And Nicholson is the Bad Father whom he must also defeat - the turning point, when everything changes definitively, is when Nicholson, at bay under interrogation, calls Cruise 'son' with a sneer.

Cruise, who has already effortlessly held his own against such heavyweights as Paul Newman and Dustin Hoffman, carries this off splendidly (A Few Good Men is a first-rate actors' film in all departments, from the minor character players up) - he is becoming something of a specialist in this kind of father-son configuration, which could even be seen in a silly bit of fluff like Cocktail. But there's also something a little puerile, about the movie.

What on earth is Demi Moore doing, for instance? She's lurking in the background, nursing Cruise through his crises, but doesn't have much to say in court; she's just the bone over which Nicholson and Cruise can lock horns. In some ways it's a relief that the film avoids the obvious route (a route it seems about to rush down at several moments) of tipping her and Cruise into bed, but also oddly unsatisfying.

For a big box-office star, Cruise is a remarkably asexual creature - can you remember his love scenes in Rain Man, Born on the Fourth of July or The Colour of Money? Why, he even contrived to co-star in a big romantic epic (Far and Away) opposite his wife while barely giving her a screen kiss. Here his brand of wholesome, squeaky- clean maleness wins the day; Nicholson's dirty, decadent lusting never gets a chance.

The film's great compensating fetish is with the uniforms - whether to wear the whites, or the camouflage jackets or, in Cruise's case to begin with, whether to wear one at all. It's when he looks in his closet and eyes the serried ranks of starched shirts and jackets that he reaches one of those epiphanies that win the case. These little toy soldiers all look so cute in their spanking clean uniforms, but uniform spanking? Sex . . . no thank you, this is the Nineties.

That could certainly never be said of that genially polymorphous deviant, Pedro Almodovar who is a minor phenomenon - not so much for his films, but for the loyalty and enthusiasm of his following. When Pepi, Luci, Bom and All the Girls, an obscure, ineptly filmed and scripted early work, was dug out of the cupboard earlier this year, the audiences came flocking. In a business increasingly usurped by Hollywood, he's one of the very few European art-house auteurs to have emerged in the course of the Eighties.

The stream of juvenilia continues with Labyrinth of Passion, which concerns the farcical misadventures of Sexi, a nymphomaniac, a gay Arab prince, a female rock group and Almodovar himself, wearing what looks like a leather mini-skirt and singing 'Suck it to Me', an ode to the myriad joys of drugs. Most of the humour lurks somewhere around the level of the schoolboy who thinks it witty to say 'knickers]' (there's a particularly gross diarrhoea joke) - the film was made in 1982 and you suspect that, back then, Almodovar's generation was still high on the explosion of post- Franco liberty, the sheer thrill of being allowed to say rude things on screen and even show them now and then. It now feels like a period piece: it features the Ayatollah Khomeini and a pretentious Lacanian shrink, and its sunny promiscuity is untouched by the shadow of Aids.

Inevitably the budget doesn't allow the director to play his trump card, his fabulous art direction, but it is technically proficient: as the director remembers, 'The first thing people said about Labyrinth of Passion was 'at last, an Almodovar film that you can see and hear'.' Well, I suppose that's something.

(Photograph omitted)