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Film / The Firm

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"Power can be murder to resist."

The Firm is a 1993 legal thriller, based off the 1991 novel by John Grisham, starring Tom Cruise as a young attorney who gets in over his head when he begins working for a law firm with many secrets.

Mitch McDeere (Cruise) is a recent Harvard Law graduate who is offered a prestigious position as a litigator at the law firm Bendini, Lambert & Locke, headed by co-founder Oliver Lambert (Hal Holbrook), and soon finds himself showered with gifts, money and a new car. At the same time, he strikes up a friendship with senior partner Avery Tolar (Gene Hackman) and begins to learn the ins and outs of the law field. Mitch and his wife Abby (Jeanne Tripplehorn) are living the good life — until two associates who worked with the firm are mysteriously murdered. Unaware of what's going on, Mitch is contacted by the FBI, headed by Agent Wayne Tarrance (Ed Harris), and told that the firm is a corrupt group of lawyers with massive influence and connections to the mob. Faced with the prospect of losing his career and his wife, and with more people being murdered, Mitch realizes the only way he'll get out alive is to follow his own plan.

The Firm was the first film adaptation of a Grisham novel, and featured an All-Star Cast of actors. The film was commercially and critically successful (racking up $270 million against a $42 million budget), and led to further adaptations of Grisham's works.

A television series based on the film began airing in January 2012 on NBC, and was developed by Entertainment One Productions. The plot picks up ten years after the events of the movie, with Mitch (played by Josh Lucas) and his family deciding to leave the FBI's Witness Protection Program in order to "take back their lives". After he attempts to start his own law firm in Washington, McDeere is solicited by a bigger firm, Kinross & Clark, who brings him onboard as a litigator. At the same time, the son of one of the mob bosses indicted as a result of Mitch's actions a decade before swears vengeance on the attorney and his family.

The film provides examples of:

  • Adaptation Distillation: The ending of the book and film are radically different. Whereas Mitch uses his circumstances to skim money from the mob in the book, he breaks the firm and leaves with his integrity and ethics intact (but without much in the way of financial gain) in the film.
  • Affably Evil: The entire firm of enticingly Amoral Attorneys throughout most of the film, and especially Avery Tolar.
  • Alliterative Name: Mitch McDeere.
  • Amoral Attorney: Every lawyer at Bendini, Lambert & Locke. It's stated by Tarrance that the firm has just enough legit clients (30%) to make it look like an upstanding law firm.
  • Artistic Licence – Law: Denton Voyles claims that Bendini, Lambert & Locke are the sole legal representatives of the Morolto Crime Family. But they are tax lawyers first and foremost, so who do the Moroltos go to for issues of criminal law, such as when a mobster gets arrested?
  • Bait-and-Switch: The firm's leadership stand in a room looking very displeased with Mitch like he might be their next victim, only to inform him that he didn't get the highest score on the Bar exam - he got the second highest.
  • Bald of Evil: Wayne Tarrance, arguably. He's an FBI Agent, but he's such an utter asshole (his "I could kick your teeth down your throat and yank 'em out your asshole, and I'm not even violating your civil rights!" rant is a perfect example of a Rabid Cop at work) willing to force Mitch into a position where he will be inevitably killed in order to get evidence on the firm's (and hopefully its unlawful clients') actions that "Well-Intentioned Extremist" doesn't really fit.
  • Beauty Equals Goodness: Cruise and Tripplehorn are high school sweethearts and generally moral and righteous people. For every other character, the older (and more unattractive) they are, the greater the chance they're corrupt.
  • Being Evil Sucks: The last impression we have of Avery Tolar, Mitch's Evil Mentor. Abby walks away believing that he was, on some level, "decent".
    Abby: He was decent... and corrupt, and ruined, and so unhappy... and it could’ve happened to you, all of it.
  • Betrayal Insurance: The firm arranges for Mitch to cheat on Abigail, photographs it, and then lets him know they've got this. They don't even suspect him of being an informant yet. This is standard procedure for the firm.
  • Better to Die than Be Killed: Avery Tolar takes this way out when he realises that Mitch has betrayed the Firm and their clients will in all likelihood be coming for him.
  • Book Ends: The film starts with Mitch and Abigail arriving at their new house in Memphis, and leaving the house (in the same car) at the end of the film when they decide to move to Boston.
  • Boring, but Practical: This is how Mitch describes his proposal to charge the firm with overbilling rather than aiding and abetting organized crime; he says "it's not sexy, but it's got teeth."
  • Ceiling Cling: Mitch uses this (hanging onto a pole running across a ceiling) when he's cornered by Devasher and the Nordic Man in the abandoned building.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The trucks which get parked in the alley next to the firm's building, whose drivers are seen arguing about it with the security guards at least twice, become crucial when Mitch needs to leave an office via the window.
  • Chekhov's Skill: When Avery Tolar first meets Mitch near the beginning, he makes it very clear that all lawyers should keep a careful eye on what they bill a client, and tells Mitch to remember it well. It comes back at the end of the film, as this is what finally results in the firm's downfall.
  • Cigarette of Anxiety: Tammy Hemphill smokes in almost all of her scenes.
  • Covert Distress Code: In the novel, Tarrance calls the firm and leaves a message with Mitch's secretary that "Judge Henry Hugo" wants to speak with him, which Mitch recognizes as Tarrance's "mayday code - a 'don't ask questions just run for your life' signal".
  • Crazy-Prepared: Crossing over with Properly Paranoid, Mitch is able to stay ahead of everyone with various contingencies, plans, precautions and code names.
    • In the book, Tarrance gives him a "don't ask questions, just run" alert by calling the Firm and using the name "Judge Henry Hugo" which allows him to just walk (actually run) out the front door.
    • Also in the book, he deliberately let his bugged BMW get stolen so he could rent a car and then deliberately chooses a color for his new BMW that he knows would have to be special-ordered. When he runs, he just leaves the rental in the Firm's parking lot, which amuses Lazarov when he finds out.
    • He also arranges to have Ray at the same hotel that he sends Abby to so that he can watch her back, which allows them to spot one of their mob associates, disable her and escape.
    • Mitch picking Panama City Beach for the three to hide in counts as it's a large tourist town with numerous cheap hotels where they can pay cash, use fake names and lay low. When the mob starts looking for them, they only end up drawing attention from the police which forces them to spread themselves thin. It also faces the ocean, which makes it the ideal escape point for the three. Abanks collects them on an electric dingy and they escape on a sailboat he bought on Mitch's behalf.
    • In the film, Mitch escapes the Firm's building by going to an office that faces the alley, breaking out a window and jumping into the back of a cotton truck parked in the alley instead of facing armed security guards at the front door.
    • Also in the film, he arranges for Ray and Tammy to be in the Caribbean, have money to live on and a yacht to move around in with the copies of the records stowed below as part of the Dead Man's Switch while ensuring Ray's freedom.
  • Dead Man's Switch: When Mitch assures the mob that their secrets are safe, he also issues a veiled threat by letting them know that he knows all their dealings (purely to better serve them as their attorney, of course) and that he's made copies. But don't worry, because of attorney-client confidentiality those files will remain secret for as long as he lives — emphasis on lives.
  • Did Not See That Coming: In the film, neither the firm nor the Morolatos expected Mitch to take down the firm with Mail Fraud. When Mitch has Dutch unlock the door to the Office Manager to examine their bills before they open, he's not the least bit suspicious and doesn't report it. When they start shredding, they end up shredding the wrong files. When Mitch explains to the Moralto brothers that the firm has been over-billing their clients, they're quite surprised that he's actually planning to let them off the hook.
  • Don't Ask, Just Run: Just before Mitch is called into a meeting with Lambert and the other partners, Tarrance reaches him through his secretary and tells him to blow his cover and run for his life. Instead of trying to bluff his way through the meeting, Mitch wisely does just that.
  • Earn Your Fun: The firm makes Mitch deduce what his job offer entails by getting him to ask courtroom-style questions to the firm's hiring managers.
  • Elvis Impersonator: Tammy's truck driver ex-husband, who (in the book) had changed his name to Elvis Aaron Hemphill and moved his family to Memphis shortly after the real Elvis' death.
  • Every Man Has His Price: Tarrance tells Mitch about the firm's modus operandi: they "buy" the lawyer's loyalty with money, job security and support for private schooling, while gradually easing the lawyer into shadier activities. If the lawyer refuses to cooperate, the firm can threaten to bankrupt him, and if he persists, they kill him.
  • Excuse Me, Coming Through!: When Mitch escapes the assassins trying to kill him, he runs down the "up" escalator in a public square, prompting this statement.
  • Failed a Spot Check: Subverted. The FBI walks Mitch's brother out the front door of prison without cuffing him or providing a return date and a guard on the firm's payroll alerts them immediately.
    • And later on, when Devasher shoots a silhouette with a briefcase thinking it's Mitch - no, it's the nordic man, with noticeably longer hair than Mitch, who has worked with Devasher for a while (so he'd know about the hair length).
    • And near the end, Mitch recovers the tape of Tarrance threatening him from his turned-over house - a tape the Firm's search squad somehow failed to locate, despite thoroughly turning over everything else.
  • Faux Affably Evil: Both angels and demons, here. The firm is full of affable guys who have no problem blackmailing or killing Mitch and Wayne Tarrance is only affable until Mitch refuses to follow his request without anything in exchange (not even the promise of protection) and then cuts loose with a perfect example of a Rabid Cop's rant:
    Agent Wayne Tarrance: Who gives a fuck? I'm a federal agent! You know what that means, you lowlife motherfucker? It means you've got no rights, your life is mine! I could kick your teeth down your throat and yank 'em out your asshole, and I'm not even violating your civil rights!
  • Foreshadowing:
    • When Mitch reports that the FBI approached him to the senior partners, the last thing they remark on is who they should bill the hour to that they've just spent talking about it. Billing looms large later
    • A truck with sacks full of cotton appears in the scene immediately after - which provides a safe landing to Mitch later when he has to jump out of a window to escape the firm's enforcers
  • Greed: What does Bendini, Lambert and Locke in at the end - if they'd just charged for what they actually did and taken their already massive revenue and profits from their Mob dealings, Mitch would likely have had to choose between disbarment (co-operating with the FBI) or potential prison time later (using his tape of Tarrance to get the FBI off his back). But thanks to their overbilling, not only could he Take a Third Option, but presumably the mob isn't happy about being ripped off by their (now ex) lawyers.
  • Groin Attack: Mitch may or may not have been kicking Devasher in the family jewels once he had him on the ground (but due to the angle it's hard to tell).
  • Hero of Another Story: At the beginning of the story, two of Mitch's coworkers, Kozinski and Hodge, are trying to escape from the firm's grasp and are scheming to help the FBI bring down the Amoral Attorneys. This gets them killed before they can appear onscreen.
  • Hot Teacher: Abby as she's played by Jeanne Triplehorn.
  • Insistent Terminology: Mitch receives several job offers from Wall Street with all of them remarking how high he is in his graduating class - except for one of them. He wasn't in the top 5% of his class. He was in the top 5.
  • Intimidating Revenue Service: Mitch decided to pursue a career in law when tax agents shut down the pizza parlor he worked at for his first job; in his eyes, that proved that either you were someone who used the law to your ends, or you were someone the law was used on.
    Mitch: I was a delivery boy for a pizza parlour. One day the owner got a notice from the IRS. He was an immigrant. He didn't know much English, even less about withholding tax. He went bankrupt, lost his store. That was the first time I thought about being a lawyer.
    Avery: In other words you're an idealist.
    Mitch: I don't know any tax lawyer who's an idealist. When he lost his store I lost my job. It scared me.
    Avery: Being out of work?
    Mitch: No. What the government can do... to anybody.
  • Ivy League for Everyone: Played with. Mitch is a Harvard Law grad, and knows how exclusive and in-demand his education was, while people joke about his education (and the fact that he got absurdly high bar exam scores) throughout the film.
  • Jerkass: FBI Agent Wayne Tarrance is cordial to a point with Mitch... until Mitch decides he doesn't want to play ball with the FBI if he's going to be disbarred. Tarrance then switches to an arrogant jerk who boldly tries to intimidate him and his wife.
  • Justice by Other Legal Means: Mitch successfully ensnares the firm by using lawyer-client privilege to reach an agreement with the Morolto mob while proving every legal partner was guilty of over-billing their clients, thus allowing him to keep his status as a lawyer.
    Mitch: It's not sexy, but it's got teeth! Ten thousand dollars and five years in prison. That's ten and five for each act. Have you really looked at that? You've got every partner in the firm on over-billing. There's two hundred-fifty acts of documented mail fraud there. That's racketeering! That's minimum: 1250 years in prison and half a million dollars in fines. That's more than you had on Capone.
  • Loophole Abuse: Exhibited by the firm Mitch works for. As an example, they have connections with The Mafia and other unlawful groups, but as long as they maintain a certain percentage of innocent clients, they are still technically respectable enough to avoid an actual investigation (which is where Tarrance's strong-arming of Mitch comes in — he wants him to become The Mole so he will give the feds evidence under the table).
  • Murder by Mistake: Devasher kills the Nordic Man (who picked up Mitch's briefcase while the lawyer was hiding, and stood up to face a door) by accident after thinking that the silhouette behind the door was Mitch.
  • Mythology Gag: In the climax of the film, Mitch likens what he knows about the mob's money to a ship at sea that could never reach any port. In the ending of the book, Mitch and his wife end up in exile, sailing around the Caribbean on a yacht. Ray and Tammy get that fate in the film.
  • Named by the Adaptation: Inverted with the Nordic Man, whose real name was Aaron Rimmer in the novel.
  • Nebulous Criminal Conspiracy: The firm is a front for the mob.
  • Nice Job Fixing It, Villain:
    • Throughout the film, everyone jokes to Mitch about his absurdly high bar exam score. This comes back to bite them in the ass when they inadvertently give Mitch the idea he needs to take down the firm.
    • In the book, the Moroltos mislead the authorities into thinking the McDeeres had switched vehicles and moved inland. This ends their dragnet in Panama City Beach and leaves their group free to search for them. All it does it make it easier—though no less dangerous—for the McDeeres to slip away. They also end up spreading themselves thin since they attract unwanted attention from the remaining cops during their door-to-door search. By the time the McDeeres leave, they're working alone, hot, weary and lulled into boredom.
  • No Escape but Down: Mitch has nowhere to go when he attempts to flee the firm's offices, so he breaks a window and leaps several stories down onto a flatbed truck filled with bales of cotton.
  • Oh, Crap!: Tarrance once he realizes that Mitch taped their conversation, in which he overexerted his authority and threatened to destroy Mitch.
  • Pair the Spares: Mitch's brother and Lomax's secretary.
  • Peer Pressure Makes You Evil: Averted. Mitch is completely oblivious to the backroom dealings of the law firm until an FBI agent basically smacks him in the face with the evidence that he's working for very corrupt people.
  • Pet the Dog: The Moroltos get a moment of this when Mitch has the audacity to show up on their doorstep with a proposition when the only reason they were in town was to kill him.
  • Plot-Based Voice Cancellation: Inverted when Mitch comes home after finding out the truth about the firm. Abigail has the stereo, and he turns it up in order to tell her what he knows so no one can overhear, which works because we the audience know already.
  • Pretty in Mink: Abby gets a fox coat for Christmas when Mitch first joins the firm.
  • Punctuated Pounding: After Mitch dropkicks Devasher when hanging from the ceiling, he repeatedly beats the bigger man with his briefcase and kicks him, while yelling "YOU SICK! SON OF A! BITCH!"
  • Rabid Cop: FBI Agent Wayne Tarrance tries to be this, once the affable act only makes Mitch dig his feet in and refuse to become his mole within the firm. It bites him in the ass: Mitch was wearing a Hidden Wire at that moment. He still pretends to relent and attempts to use Mitch's brother as leverage to strong-arm him in the third act, but much to his misfortune Mitch had a plan in place.
    Tarrance: How about you get down on your knees and kiss my ass for not indicting you as a co-conspirator right now, you chickenshit little Harvard cocksucker?
    McDeere: I haven't done anything, and you know it!
    Tarrance: Who gives a fuck? I'm a federal agent! You know what that means, you lowlife motherfucker? It means you've got no rights, your life is mine! I could kick your teeth down your throat and yank 'em out your asshole, and I'm not even violating your civil rights!
  • Resignations Not Accepted: Up until Mitch escapes, the firm murdered every associate who either tried to leave or tried to alert the authorities as to what was going on.
  • Rewrite: In the movie, Mitch and Abby get to drive away from the firm (and Memphis) without exposing the firm's ties to organized crime. In the novel, after Mitch does expose the firm's ties to the mob, they get to spend their lives in exile sailing a yacht around the Caribbean.
  • Shout-Out:
    • The film's tagline is one to The Godfather.
    • At one point, Mitch says (in regards to Tarrance's threats that Mitch must cooperate) that "They don't run me, and you don't run me," a reference to a line spoken by James Caan in 1981's Thief, which featured a hitman facing similar circumstances.
  • Sir Not-Appearing-in-This-Trailer: Gene Hackman wasn't in any of the promotional materials. In fact audiences were shocked when he showed up.
  • Sir Swears-a-Lot: Tarrance.
    Tarrance: How about you get down on your knees and kiss my ass for not indicting you as a co-conspirator right now, you chickenshit little Harvard cocksucker?
    McDeere: I haven't done anything, and you know it!
    Tarrance: Who gives a fuck? I'm a federal agent! You know what that means, you lowlife motherfucker? It means you've got no rights, your life is mine! I could kick your teeth down your throat and yank 'em out your asshole, and I'm not even violating your civil rights!
  • Spanner in the Works: One in the book and one in the film:
    • In the book, the mob asks another mob family who has a mole in the FBI about McDeere. It works for and against them as:
      • When the mole meets up and is asked about McDeere, he denies knowing about him and needs two weeks to find answers despite already knowing everything and not giving them an answer right then.
      • After meeting with them and exposing McDeere, the FBI immediately catches him and he breaks down and confesses on the spot. Which enables Terrance to immediately call and warn McDeere with a pre-arranged "don't ask questions, just run" code name.
      • While he and the others manage to escape, it causes a major shake-up in McDeere's escape plans and they end up with both the mob and the FBI on their tails.
    • In the film, the prison guard at Ray's prison is on the Firm's payroll. He notices something is wrong when Ray is taken away without being cuffed and with no return date. So he sends an unauthorized fax to the Firm. Like in the book, it ends up being a spanner for both sides as:
      • While the fax ends up being received successfully and prints out, it then falls and rolls underneath the fax machine; which saves the protagonists and gives them more time.
      • That is until DeVasher checks the machine when it beeps and berates his staff for not realizing the unit is out of paper. Then he notices the curled up fax on the floor, picks it up, reads it and starts hunting for Mitch.
      • At about the same time, the Warden at the prison contacts Terrance about the fax and manages to warn Mitch; enabling him to escape just in time.
  • Spotting the Thread: Abigail gets suspicious of the firm when another wife informs her that the firm encourages children and won't disallow her from having a job of her own. Combined with the money and perks being thrown at them she quickly deduces that the firm is very controlling of its employees.
  • Swiss Bank Account: Mitch orders Tarrance to provide him with $1.5 million deposited in an offshore bank account in exchange for collaborating with the FBI (prompting the reaction seen in the Sir Swears-a-Lot example).
  • To Be Lawful or Good: The main conflict Mitch faces in the last half of the film — if he takes down the firm, he loses his licence to practice law. Mitch Takes a Third Option, and drives a wedge between the firm and the mob to get out unscathed and protect his career.
    • To anyone who understands Attorney–Client Privilege, this is a potential plot hole. The privilege is void in cases where the attorney and client are engaged in a criminal conspiracy. Which is definitely the case with the two lawyers that are killed (See Thrown from the Zeppelin below) as they did speak to the FBI (in the book and implied in the film).
    • Also noteworthy is that Mitch isn't in on the conspiracy, is working for legitimate clients and only suspects something is seriously wrong when the FBI approaches him. Which introduces another plot hole: stealing records from his law firm at the direction (actually threat of prosecution) of the FBI makes those records, and any searches or seizures that result, inadmissible in court as Mitch was acting as an agent of the police. The records he steals from the mob would make him part of the conspiracy but he uses them as a Dead Man's Switch instead to protect himself and his loved ones.
  • Thrown from the Zeppelin: Lawyers who've been working at Bendini, Lambert & Locke for a few years find themselves being summoned to a private meeting with the firm's partners, who tell them that the firm engages in tax fraud and money laundering for The Mafia. In fifty years, only two lawyers (three in the book) have ever dared to quit. All of them promptly learned the meaning of the phrase Make It Look Like an Accident the hard way (as did two others who tried to go to the FBI).
  • Ungrateful Bastard: Tarrance, at the end - Mitch has given him enough to sink Bendini, Lambert and Locke utterly. And Mitch is correct that the mob can only launder their money via washing machine without lawyers - and while the mob might find replacements, there will be fewer takers after the downfall of Bendini, Lambert and Locke. And these things don't happen immediately - giving the FBI a small window in which to get the mob for tax evasion/avoidance if they put a foot wrong absent of lawyer assistance. And the arrested lawyers might talk, because disbarment is preferable to dying in prison (of old age, or of the mob taking revenge for being overcharged, or of the mob ensuring their silence). Despite all this, Tarrance still screams at Mitch for not doing things exactly as he demanded, and while he does finally let Mitch go after Mitch explains how and why his approach works, Tarrance does so begrudgingly and without even a word of thanks. Though after Mitch explained his end-game and gave him the blackmail tape, he is mollified and a bit amused—even impressed—and asks:
    Terrance: How in the Hell did you ever come up with Mail Fraud?
    Mitch: It was in the Bar Exam.
    (Terrance lets out an amused scoff)
    Mitch: They made me study like Hell for it.
  • Villainous Breakdown: Wayne Tarrance got one when Mitch's brother escapes.
    Tarrance: And get me a map of Louisiana. GET ME A MAP OF LOUISIANA!
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: In the book, it's mentioned that four other lawyers besides Mitch are currently uninvolved in any of the firm's criminal activity. As it becomes clearer that the authorities are snooping around, the partners debate about whether or not to fire the lawyers to eliminate a security risk, but it's never revealed whether they do so or whether the four get caught up in the FBI investigation despite their innocence.
  • Xanatos Gambit: Mitch pulls off a beautiful one by the film's climax, by giving the FBI enough evidence to bury the firm in thousands of years of incarceration and millions in fines, while convincing the Moroltos that he will not disclose any information he has while he is alive, and implies that his death would lead to their own destruction with full disclosure of everything to the FBI.