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Runaway Jury
2003 - PG-13 - 127 Mins.
Director: Gary Fleder
Producer: Arnon Milchan, Gary Fleder, and Christopher Mankiewicz
Written By: Brian Koppelman & David Levien and Rick Cleveland and Matthew Chapman, novel by John Grisham
Starring: John Cusack, Gene Hackman, Dustin Hoffman, Rachel Weisz, Bruce Davison
Review by: David Trier
   
When a stockbroker and his staff are gunned down, the widow decides to take the gun corporation to court. While attorney Wendell Rohr (Dustin Hoffman) tries to work the case ethically, he allows the help of a young jury expert (Jeremy Piven) to advise him on who would be sympathetic to the plaintiff. But a big evil gun corporation can hire a powerful defense lawyer (Bruce Davison) and a jury guru, Rankin Fitch (Gene Hackman). Fitch has an entire crew, fully equipped with all the tools necessary for rampant violations of people’s privacy. But when Nick Easter (John Cusack) makes it on the jury and conspires with his girlfriend (Rachel Weisz) to manipulate the verdict, a dangerous power play and an ethics lesson in blackmail ensues. Dude, where’s my jury?

Cusack plays the same likable, believable, yet ethically challenged everyman he usually does, but again proves to be the master of being comfortably uncomfortable. Rachel Weisz is decent as the implausibly crafty blackmailer and has a strong screen presence. Hackman is as entertaining as expected in a role that is evil to the point of being a little cartoonish. Hoffman is sadly given little to work with and appears surprisingly unable to hold his ground against Hackman. One scene in particular between the two is so staged and redundant, it looks like their taking a theater class.

Runaway Jury has a huge cast of supporting favorites, including Bruce McGill, Jennifer Beals, Nick Searcy, Joanna Going, Bill Nunn, Nora Dunn, Orlando Jones, Rusty Schwimmer, and a mysteriously uncredited Dylan McDermott and Luis Guzman, all a joy to watch. Cliff Curtis is also excellent as a tough-guy juror.

Like many films derived from John Grisham’s work, Runaway Jury is fast paced and tense, but spends far more time in a fantasy world than in the real one. Characters seem to get away with amazing criminal feats only because other characters don’t seem to be paying much attention. The dialogue is far from subtle and many scenes are comprised of legal theorizing more than they are devoted to moving the plot forward. While many of the characters have some unusual secrets to be revealed, some are just “bad guys” and this makes for some unintentionally campy moments.

The actual trial is not particularly well debated and, whereas many of us would love to see an evil gun corporation go down for making products for criminals use, I’m not sure the plaintiff has much of a case. There certainly isn’t a whole lot of evidence brought up in the film. But to be fair, this is not an episode of Law & Order. Instead, Runaway Jury focuses on how we take for granted that the twelve people selected to judge cases are a so-called “jury of your peers” when in fact they are a carefully selected sample of biases.

The fundamental problem with this film, which is by no means an uncommon problem, is that the good guys are way more conniving, far more manipulative and have access to way more resources than average, ethical people generally do. So we find ourselves rooting for lawbreakers who abuse the system for personal gain, even though it may be to prove an ethical point. Grisham even tries to justify Nick Easter’s fraud by having him say that jury tampering exists, so why should only people like Fitch make any money off of it? Yeah, that’s not really good enough.

Plot holes form a quaint little mote around this film. I recently got a jury summons myself and they make you check in each evening to see if you’ll actually be needed. I managed to serve all week without ever even going to the courthouse. So, how is it that Easter can orchestrate this master plan when he can’t even control actually getting called in? Seems like a lot of work for something you probably wouldn’t get an opportunity to do.

Still, there are a lot worse movies playing right now and Gene Hackman or John Cusack fans will not be disappointed in their performances. Plus, Gary Fleder’s directing style (which can be seen in episodes of The Shield and Homicide more than in his unsuccessful features) makes for some thrilling moments. Robert Elswit (Punch Drunk Love) deserves praise for the cinematography.

And besides… “Movies are too important to be decided on by critics.”
 
Movie Guru Rating
Average but solid.  Fans of this genre will probably enjoy it.  Others may not. Average but solid.  Fans of this genre will probably enjoy it.  Others may not. Average but solid.  Fans of this genre will probably enjoy it.  Others may not.
  3 out of 5 stars

 
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