Runaway Jury

on October 17, 2003 by Wade Major
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It says a great deal about the perceived clout of John Grisham's novels that they not only continue to be adapted into films, but still attract some of the industry's biggest stars. Not since 1993's "The Firm," though, has a Grisham adaptation secured a high-powered cast like that in "Runaway Jury," a typically implausible potpourri of Grisham clich├ęs which would sink under the weight of its own pomposity if not for the strength of cast and direction.

The "ripped from the headlines" story, set in New Orleans, concerns a potentially landmark lawsuit seeking to hold a firearms manufacturer responsible for a deadly workplace shooting three years prior. Given the crucial role that jury makeup plays in such cases, both lead lawyers--corporate attorney Cable (Bruce Davison) and prosecutor Wendall Rohr (Hoffman)--elect to lean on the prowess of "jury consultants": Rohr on an eager young expert named Lawrence Greene (Jeremy Piven) and Davison on a seasoned old viper by the name of Rankin Fitch (Gene Hackman, in a variation on his "The Firm" role). Fitch, however, is no ordinary consultant. He's J. Edgar Hoover reincarnated, a win-at-all-costs type who treats jury selection like a spy game, employing an army of surveillance experts and high-tech equipment to accumulate a wealth of information on each and every possible jurist, finally relying on his own failsafe gut reaction to judge which will be most favorable to the company's case.

Such ruthlessness would ordinarily doom the case for an idealist like Rohr if not for an unforeseen wild card by the name of Nick Easter (John Cusack). A clever con man with a talent for persuasion and jury manipulation, Easter is able to finagle his way through the jury selection gauntlet and onto the jury where, with the help of girlfriend Marlee (Rachel Weisz), he makes his move, promising to deliver a verdict favorable to whichever side pays him $10 million.

This is, of course, typical Grisham territory--courtroom theatrics pumped to hysterical excess with no regard whatsoever for the resulting plot holes, contrivances, coincidences or overall narrative preposterousness. Not that this has ever hampered the success of a Grisham film--the success of past adaptations suggests that audiences are only too eager to accept these flaws so long as the film delivers its quota of thrills and star power--about the only two qualities which "Runaway Jury" does not lack. Director Gary Fleder's direction is fluid and slick and the performances uniformly solid, though not without missed opportunities. While Hackman and Hoffman, in their first film together, get plenty of opportunities to showboat individually, they are given only one scene together--a disappointing restroom confrontation that occurs fairly late in the game. Each tries mightily to make the scene work, but the material lets them down, leaving the two titans idling like vintage race cars running on fumes.

But since most filmgoers, and Grisham filmgoers in particular, prefer to check their brains at the door, "Runaway Jury" will probably safely follow its predecessors into marginal box-office profitability, critical scorn notwithstanding. Starring John Cusack, Gene Hackman, Dustin Hoffman, Rachel Weisz, Bruce Davison, Bruce McGill, Jeremy Piven and Nick Searcy. Directed by Gary Fleder. Written by Brian Koppelman & David Levien and Rick Cleveland and Matthew Chapman. Produced by Arnon Milchan, Gary Fleder and Christopher Mankiewicz. A Fox release. Thriller. Rated PG-13 for violence, language and thematic elements. Running time: 127 min

Tags: Starring John Cusack, Gene Hackman, Dustin Hoffman, Rachel Weisz, Bruce Davison, Bruce McGill, Jeremy Piven and Nick Searcy. Directed by Gary Fleder. Written by Brian Koppelman & David Levien and Rick Cleveland and Matthew Chapman. Produced by Arnon Milchan, Gary Fleder, Christopher Mankiewicz, Fox, Thriller
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