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Runaway Jury (A Movie Review)

Updated: May 15, 2023


Starring John Cusack, Gene Hackman, Dustin Hoffman, Rachel Weisz, Jeremy Piven, Bruce Davison, Bruce McGill, Melora Walters, Gerry Bamman, Bill Nunn, Luis Guzman, Stanley Anderson, Wayne Ferrara, Leland Orser, Joanna Going, Nora Dunn, Jennifer Beals, Dylan McDermott, Nick Searcy, Deacon Dawson, Irene Ziegler, Stuart Greer and Orlando Jones.

Screenplay by Brian Koppelman and David Levien.

Directed by Gary Fleder.

Distributed by Regency Pictures. Rated PG-13. 127 minutes.

You don't go to a film based on a John Grisham novel looking for deep insights or subtlety. Grisham is a firm believer in crisp legal thrillers where everything is drawn in broad strokes. The good guys are very good, and the bad guys are just plain evil. Arguments are made in black and white. You know who you're supposed to be rooting for, and though he sometimes toys with us, you can pretty safely bet that righteousness will be at least mostly rewarded.

The 1996 novel Runaway Jury was a good bracing read, though, and it had a story that was tailor made for the big screen. Oh, a little tinkering was done in bringing the story to the cinemas. The evil organization at the heart of the plot has been shifted from a callous tobacco cooperative to a callous gun cooperative. The setting has been moved from Macon to New Orleans. That's about the extent of the changes.

Which is okay because the storyline was ready for the bigs anyway. It is very simple. There is a huge civil suit against a group of firearms companies. Losing the case would cause huge repercussions and set precedents which could destroy the industry. So the companies spend a fortune to hire a "jury specialist" named Rankin Fitch. Fitch is a cold-hearted win-at-all-costs guy who is willing to do anything to ensure that he wins over the jury. He and his people will use bugging, blackmail, mental and physical intimidation to get a Not Guilty vote.

On the other side, Dustin Hoffman plays Wendell Rohr. Rohr is an old-school southern litigator who believes in the sanctity of the law and wants to win the case on the merits of his argument.

The wild card thrown into the situation comes when a mysterious woman contacts both sides saying that she has control of the jury. She will promise a victory, for a price. The woman turns out to be Marlee, the girlfriend of Nicholas Easter (John Cusack) a videogame store clerk who has manipulated his way onto the jury.

Marlee and Nick cause the jurors to act erratically to prove they are serious. Soon the twelve are saying the pledge of allegiance in the beginning of the day, having lunch out in local restaurants, getting jurors removed. Fitch has his henchmen try to intimidate the schemers at the same time as he negotiates with them. Rohr still believes that justice will prevail, but as things look bleaker and bleaker for his case, he becomes increasingly tempted to join the bidding.

Cusack's regular Joe persona helps to get the audience to root for Nick. He may be doing something that is at least illegal and perhaps immoral, but he still seems a sympathetic character. You can see why the other eleven jurors would react to him so strongly. Weisz also does terrific work at making Marlee a complex character, at times confident and at times insecure about what they are doing.

It is amazing that after all these years, this is the first time that Hoffman and Hackman have worked together. Even now, they have only one short scene in a men's room where they actually speak to each other, but what a scene. The two legends stare each other down, Hoffman trying to use honesty and honor while Hackman oozes snaky indifference. It is by far the best scene in terms of acting in the film, and this film has a lot of terrific acting.

The film has an exceptionally deep cast, so deep, in fact, that they could bring in 80s movie star Jennifer Beals (Flashdance) as a juror and only give her one line, and a pretty unimportant line at that. Other solid journeymen like Bill Nunn, Luis Guzman, Bruce McGill, Jeremy Piven, Leland Orser, Joanna Going and Nora Dunn do good jobs of fleshing out some kind of sketchy characters.

The story speeds on at a breathless pace as the twists and turns intensify. The ending is not as surprising as the filmmakers claim, in fact, it seems pretty inevitable, but it is a satisfying resolution. That and a stellar cast help to make Runaway Jury the most enjoyable Grisham film in years. (10/03)

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright © 2003 All rights reserved. Posted: October 26, 2003.

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