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Runaway Jury (2003) Print E-mail
Friday, 17 October 2003
A few years ago, it seemed you couldn't throw a stick at a multiplex without hitting a poster for either a Steven King movie or one based on a book by John Grisham. The vogue for King movies dwindled somewhat, but Grisham adaptations faded away altogether. That is, until "Runaway Jury," a sleek, polished adaptation of one of Grisham's later novels.

Of course it deals with attorneys and a prominent trial, and of course it has some surprising twists and turns. However, the result of one of the twists is that the moral underpinning of the story pretty much vanishes -- everyone in the story, except principled attorney Dustin Hoffman, is revealed as a greedy, unethical swine. This does not make for fun viewing -- it's hard to feel concerned for characters who are as cold-blooded and avaricious as these seem to be.

I'll go out on a limb and add that eventually the moral compass ends up pointing due north again, but it takes a while, and doesn't erase the sour feeling engendered by all too much of the film.

As the movie opens, we see proud young father Jacob Woods (an unbilled Dylan McDermott) arrive at the New Orleans brokerage firm where he works only to be gunned down by a deranged former employee. Two years later, Woods' widow has hired well-known attorney Wendall Rohr (Hoffman) to sue the gun company which made the gun the killer (who committed suicide) used to kill her husband and ten other people. Although this is the case we see tried, the details are relatively unimportant in the movie -- which is a weakness. If you're going to pick up the gun control baton, you need to twirl it, not act like it's really something else.

The nation's gun manufacturers have hired brilliant, cold-blooded jury consultant Rankin Fitch (Gene Hackman), who is much more in charge of the case than the nominal attorney, Cable (Bruce Davison, again excellent as a weakling). Fitch has already set up a well-oiled machine of an office staffed with cynical young surveillance experts; they're illegally keeping video and audio tabs on all the potential jurors. Fitch arrogantly plans to stack the jury with those he knows from the beginning will come down on the side of the gun manufacturers.

Meanwhile, Rohr, very much an attorney of the people, tries to sort through the jurors with the help of Lawrence Green (Jeremy Piven), who arrives from Philadelphia eager to help. Not only does he believe in the case, but he knows it has the potential to be a landmark decision.

But the central character in the story is electronics store clerk Nick Easter (John Cusack), who meets attractive Marlee (Rachel Weisz) in a Latin Quarter store. As we see the two attorneys and their jury consultants sort through the potential jurors -- Fitch illegally, Rohr and Green legally -- Nick moves up higher in the ranks. When he is finally called on, he tries to persuade Judge Harkin (the busy Bruce McGill) that he should be excused. But Rohr is happy with him, and while Fitch has some misgivings about Nick -- thinks he's too ready to make jokes -- he seats him, too.
And then we learn that this is exactly what Nick and his partner Marlee have planned all along. They send notes to each attorney saying that the jury is for sale; Nick can persuade them to go either way, depending on which side offers the most money. And Marlee, who contacts them by cell phone, is asking ten million bucks, minimum.

The stage is set, and the rest of the movie dances about upon it. Who's going to buy the jury? Or can the jury be bought? Is Nick as crooked as he seems -- or maybe even crookeder? Will Rohr abandon a lifetime of principles to cave in because the case is so important? Will Fitch buy in -- we know he's capable of it -- or will he pull shenanigans of his own?

The latter is the first thing he tries. He sends a confederate to Nick's apartment to get whatever they can find, hopefully computer records. This leads to one of the worst-motivated, worst-shot chases in movie history. Director Gary Fleder, who's always placed style over substance, edits the footage to a frenzy of swift shots, sometimes with a moving or even jittery camera. The audience can't tell what's happening, and because of that, doesn't care what's happening, either. The chase ends in a fizzle on both sides -- Nick can't stop the guy getting away, even though he smashes the guy's car windows with a convenient metal pipe, and the guy doesn't get away with anything very good. So they go through all this again later.

The story is almost unavoidably fragmented. There are four screenwriters, the team of Brian Koppelman and David Levien, as well as Rick Cleveland and Matthew Chapman. None of these, together or separately, have very good resumes (although Cleveland did write for "The West Wing"), and the script is jumbled and incoherent. Hackman is supposed to be a brilliant, unscrupulous manipulator, but he keeps getting outfoxed by these amateurs. Hoffman is intended to be that bright himself, but though he keeps looking shrewd, he makes little headway himself.

It's hard to get a grip on the characters played by Cusack and Weisz, partly because that's exactly what's intended -- but aside from Cusack's tendency to crack jokes and Weisz's beauty and intelligence, they're not at all appealing characters, at least for almost the entire movie.

The bottom line -- it's not easy to tell what the film is really about. It's not about gun control, although that's the subject of the lawsuit. It's not about mystery and suspense, because the tricks in the plot automatically preclude mystery and suspense. It's not about the characters, because each is broadly drawn to the point of thinness. It's not even about New Orleans, although we do get occasional glimpses of that storied city, and one scene is set at the Cafe Du Mond with Hoffman downing a beignet.

The movie is, nonetheless, reasonably entertaining throughout, partly because any four of the leads -- and Davison and McGill, too -- could read the phone book and make it compelling. They're all very skilled professionals, and great fun to watch. It's especially entertaining to see Hoffman and Hackman, close friends since they roomed together as struggling actors back in the 1950s, finally get to have a scene all to their own, the first time they've appeared together in a movie. And they, if not the script, make the most of it. I could sit and happily watch them argue for hours. They're both fine actors, but what's more, they're among the handful of fine actors who always, but always, look like they're having a great time acting. They're just fun to watch, and here they are together.

Sometimes knowing that actors are friends can add to our enjoyment when they work together. This was true in the past of James Stewart and Henry Fonda, political opposites but very close friends from their arrival in Hollywood. They didn't work together very often, but when they did, their ease and comfort together, and the simple joy they felt in being in front of the camera at the same time, added a lot to the relatively trivial movies they did star in together. The same is true of Hoffman and Hackman, and Gary Fleder knew it. He built the story up to the scene between the two (in a men's room), where they spell out their clashing views of the law and responsibility. It doesn't add a thing to the movie in terms of story, but it's the highlight of the film just the same.

Cusack is well-cast as Nick Easter. Cusack has always been an intense actor whose characters almost always seem to be hiding something (sometimes from themselves). He's sharp, alert and works well with others (sounds like a kindergarten evaluation), and, to the point here, can easily play either side of morality. Here, he ends up doing both.

We spend a lot of time with the jury, getting to know some of them, so when Fitch’s machinations begin having an effect, we do care about them, but primarily they serve as window dressing – something to fill up the movie.

"Runaway Jury" is fun to watch, but it will be hard to recall much about it a week after you see it. You'll probably remember the big scene between Hackman and Hoffman, but you might forget what movie you saw it in. The story itself is pat and uninvolving; the great acting carries the movie along, and the very ending is touching and satisfying. Getting there is a bit of a, ha ha, trial, but for those with an evening to spare, you can do worse than "Runaway Jury."

Note: in addition to McDermott, Orlando Jones has an uncredited cameo. Luis Guzman, one of the jury, is also uncredited.

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