Jack Nicholson yelling at Tom Cruise behind those unmistakable set of gnashers is as iconic as when he poked his head through a door that he maniacally took an axe to in The Shining.. Fittingly, his “Heeere’s Johnny!” moment shares the same creative input as “you can’t handle the truth” as both were improvised by the man himself. Those five words light the fuse to Colonel Jessup’s eruption in Rob Reiner’s A Few Good Men, and his rant to Cruise’s Lt. Kaffee is just as terrifying as his other iconic role, albeit reserved to the witness stand and not an abandoned hotel. What’s often overlooked about this venomous monologue, however, is not just its execution from the man bellowing it across the courtroom, but the co-star getting the brunt of it that lead him to saying it in the first place. In retrospect, Cruise shares very little screentime with Nicholson; two encounters culminating in this 138-minute film that are totally dependent on these two men butting heads. Both meetings are a verbal sparring match which, whilst audiences may not have realised at that point, is what they’d come to expect with an Aaron Sorkin script. For their first round, it’s clear that the two are sizing each other up and one is grossly outgunned by the other, to begin with.
A casual dinner and extension of ‘common fucking courtesy’ slowly turn south when the young hotshot attorney presses the wrong buttons and Jessup goes to excruciating lengths in putting his guests in their place. Kaffee’s ‘faggity white’ uniform that the Colonel shows such disdain for might as well be running red by the time he’s done, which makes their final meet that much more enjoyable.
This isn’t a witness statement; it’s a game of chess, with Sorkin setting up the pieces just right before one player flips the table and spends a minute losing his collective shit. Jessup marches into that room and towers over everyone else that’s there to meet him, throwing a steely glare at the snotty-nosed lawyer who requested his appearance and getting nothing back and is met with one just the same. What follows is prime 90s Cruise, painting the scene with a swagger and charm that few could match at the time, displaying someone who might just be the smartest one in the room if it weren’t for the titan in the witness stand. Every shuffle Jessup makes in his chair is a crack in his ego, microscopic as they may be, and for a moment you think he’s walking away unscathed, enjoying one last jab before he attempts to leave the courtroom. At least, he thinks it’s his last. It’s a wonderful bit of teamwork from key figures involved Nicholson and Cruise. The former’s decorated officer walks through the shot with that dominating march, and his opponent doesn’t even raise his head. What we do see though is him steady himself through a cold glass of water, struggling to swallow it before turning back to bring Jessup down and going hell for leather when he does. From here, the cogs don’t necessarily turn, but stall in Jessup’s head, as Kaffee hangs him up by his own uniform tie, quickly sending him to boiling point and ending in that speech that has immortalised A Few Good Men.
The best kind of villains are the ones we hate to agree with and Jessup is just such an example. The entire film has rested on a debate that only the Colonel can settle and his ‘You can’t handle the truth’ might as well be the heading to the eloquent and vitriolic argument that follows. Even if you don’t know it off by heart, you know the rhythm and some moments that stand out from others, the parts about wanting him on the wall, about blankets of freedom and finally not giving a damn what we think. Does he steal the show? You’re god damn right, he did. As Reiner once put so wonderfully when discussing A Few Good Men, having Jack on your team is like having Babe Ruth and here he goes out swinging. Under that rage is a performance so stabilised Nicholson went on to do it several times off-camera for the benefit of Reiner’s required reaction shots. When the director asked his all-star team member if he wanted to tone it down, he laughed at the idea simply responding that he loves acting. Really? Can’t tell, Jack.