Even if Watergate had never happened, Hollywood might have had to invent it. In the '70s, conspiracy thrillers (All the President's Men, Winter Kills) did more than mirror the headlines. They were our ruling metaphor-for a world of false facades and corrupted souls, of power networks too malignant (and invisible) to be understood. If the culprit was usually the U.S. government, with an occasional assist from big business, the message was always the same: Someone's controlling your life, and it isn't you. The fun of THE FIRM (R), a big, cumbersome, rousing adaptation of John Grisham's 1991 page turner, is that it successfully retools the nuts and bolts of the conspiracy genre for an era of warmed-over yuppie solipsism. Powered by Grisham's twisty, occasionally tortuous mystery-suspense plot (to which screenwriters David Rabe, Robert Towne, and David Rayfiel have actually added a few convolutions), directed with crackerjack assurance by Sydney Pollack, this movie about a posh law firm with ties to the mob has some of the irresistible pulp appeal of such post-Watergate exercises in justifiable paranoia as Three Days of the Condor (also directed by Pollack) and The Parallax View. No one is going to confuse The Firm with art, but its high- cholesterol virtues-a story that keeps you guessing, a dozen meaty character turns-are enough to send you home sated. It helps if, like me, you're not ashamed to admit you enjoy Tom Cruise's gliding-on-air bravado. At this point, there probably isn't much he can do to win over his detractors, but in The Firm Cruise has just the quality that's called for: the sneaky-minded agility of a true conspiracy-buster. He plays Mitch McDeere, a brilliant, financially strapped Harvard Law School senior who dreams of working on Wall Street. Instead, he is recruited by Bendini, Lambert & Locke, a posh Memphis firm that makes him an offer too cushy to refuse: top- drawer salary, beautiful house, Mercedes. For a while, Mitch is seduced by his new trappings. But his wife, Abby (Jeanne Tripplehorn), who has worldlier intuitions than he does, is suspicious of the firm, and with good reason. Its associates (all married, no divorces) are so wholesome and enthusiastic and loyal they're like cult members. The Firm amusingly satirizes the New Traditionalist aspirations of today's young urban elite-not so much the lifestyle itself as the illusion of utter security it represents. As it turns out, no one has ever left this firm, at least not alive.
The company's dark dealings are made just plausible enough to be believable and just fanciful enough to lend the movie a creepy undertow of moral squalor. At the story's heart is an elaborate, sci-fi-like view of blue-blooded corporate devils trapping their young associates in Faustian webs. Mitch's mentor is Avery Tolar (Gene Hackman), a partner who, beneath his avuncular manner, flashes a look so cynical and knowing you just know he's up to something awful. (It doesn't help that he flaunts his crush on Mitch's wife.) Tolar takes Mitch to the Cayman Islands just after the death of two of the firm's members (who were supposedly killed in a diving accident), and it's there that Mitch begins to stumble upon the outfit's true priorities. In addition to the always brilliant Hackman, the film's tip-top cast includes Hal Holbrook, all steely politesse as one of the firm's founders; Wilford Brimley, in fine, gruff form as its head of security; Gary Busey as a seedy private investigator; Holly Hunter, in a riveting change of pace and hairdo, as his brassy-sexy secretary; and Ed Harris as an FBI agent with an explosively short fuse (his head shaved, Harris seems to have metamorphosed into one of Robert Duvall's ballistic bullies). It's a pleasure to watch these flamboyant performers chew on their lines: The movie is a veritable showcase of finely cured ham. One actor, however, stands above the rest. As Mitch's older brother, who is serving time for manslaughter, David Strathairn once again plays a lumpen down-and-outer with fiery sparks of wit and soul. < In a movie like this one, the surprises-the thrill of devious connections suddenly revealed-are everything, and for a while Pollack lets the plot unfold with maximal tension. But around the time that Hunter heads down to the Caymans to do a job for Cruise, the events begin to come at us in a dizzying rush. 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: The slightly chaotic midsection suggests some last-minute nipping and tucking. Still, the movie recovers in its audacious, if farfetched, finale, when Cruise comes face-to-face with the firm's heart of darkness and brokers an ingenious deal. The difference between a movie like The Firm and masterful commercial entertainments like Chinatown and All the President's Men is that The Firm, for all its skill, is ultimately a glorified jigsaw puzzle. In the end, Grisham's paranoid ''vision'' serves a booby-trapped plot rather than the other way around. B