Runaway Jury

Reviewed By Erik Childress
Posted 10/17/03 15:01:26

"Great Cast Makes For Pretty Darn Good Grisham"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

You have to carry a rather cynical overview when dealing with the final steps of the law. If not, youíre a hopeless optimist living in a fantasy world. Show me a good lawyer and Iíll show you an innocent victim going broke to plead his case. Trials are too important to be decided by juries, says a master manipulator in the latest John Grisham potboiler to make it to the big screen. And the point is slammed home as we have our own moral back-and-forth while the clever cat-and-mouse game hits full stride.

Rankin Fitch (Gene Hackman) is the man big business calls when a lawsuit could nail them financially and send crippling precedents throughout the law books. He knows all the potential jurors, has an experienced staff of hackers, P.I.ís and enforcers and has the capability to swing any jury to his favor with a little strategy and a few personal pushes.

In the novel it was the tobacco industry, but how many victims are truly innocent if they would have managed a little self-responsibility? Same canít be said for a disgruntled worker spraying bullets around the office. So the gun lobby is put on trial by the widow of one of the massacred.

Cleverly, the film very early on has to juggle all the main players (and quite a few supporting ones.) Wendell Rohr (Dustin Hoffman) is the idealistic prosecutor representing the grieving and (the great) Jeremy Piven plays the young turk who has a knack for selecting juries. Thereís Fitch and his cronies gathering information and thereís an incredibly well-done sequence as the lawyers under his counseling pick-and-choose the 12 they want. One of them is a last-second wildcard named Nicholas Easter (John Cusack).

At first, he wants no part of the jury citing a video game tournament as his excuse. But as the trailers have already ruined for us, he has his own agenda to play both sides of the courtroom. For a price. Along with girlfriend, Marlee (Rachel Weisz), they play a very skillful manipulation circling the jury, Fitch and Rohr, making them believe they can push the 12 angry men and women into either sideís favor.

To reveal any more than what the trailer does at this point wouldnít be wise. Despite lacking the kind of mind-blowing twists and turns, the story moreso relaxes its ability to twist us up every five minutes to instead stop at the red light before making its right turn. Coming from director Gary Fleder, who has become a small joke amongst critics, this is a welcome surprise. Past credits include the thrillers-that-had-potential (Things to Do In Denver While Youíre Dead, Kiss the Girls and Donít Say a Word aka ďIíll never tellĒ) that all fell apart in someway that couldnít just be the result of one bad screenplay after another. Then again, maybe it was and Fleder has finally found the right material because Runaway Jury never loses our interest.

When the adaptation-by-committee (Brian Koppelman, David Levien, Rick Cleveland & Matthew Chapman) isnít boiling the pot over, we occasionally catch a breather to grasp the politics of the matter. The sympathy is clearly in the widowís favor and the hissing will be audible at the gun manufacturers trying to justify the existence of their automatic weapons for anyone other than The Terminator. (Ironically, Grisham once tried to sue Oliver Stone on the behalf of the victims of a Natural Born Killers copycat.) Thereís no question who the heavy hand wants us to see win (even one of the jurors is blind, get it?), but weíre also be manipulated into HOW we want to see them victorious. God bless them for having the foresight to craft a crucial confrontation between Fitch and Rohr. Not only is it a wonderful dissection of both menís position, but it gives the audience the rare pleasure to see Hackman and Hoffman go one-on-one for the knockout. Pay-per-view events rarely live up to scenes like this.

While Gene and Dustin are doing their dance, Runaway Jury is populated with one of the great lists of character actors to put Oceanís Eleven and Altman flicks to shame. At the forefront are the aforementioned reliable faces including Cusack, Weisz and Piven. Then, surrounding them are the likes of Bruce Davison, Bruce McGill, Nick Searcy, Leland Orser, Jennifer Beals, Joanna Going, Bill Nunn, Nora Dunn, Guy Torry, a cameo by Orlando Jones and finally, the amazing, chameleonic Cliff Curtis. Some of their appearances so slight, you wonder how much got left on the cutting room floor. Then again, maybe itís just a gathering of Hollywood liberals all believing in the same cause, but as a moviewatcher, Iím just psyched to see them all sharing the same frame.

Runaway Jury is up there on the list with The Firm and The Rainmaker as the best Grisham adaptations. Itís a tight thriller with little-to-no fat on it and a refreshing bit of ambiguous cynicism on the subject matter. Itís a far-and-above cry from dreck like Trial By Jury and The Juror which also dealt with outside tampering. It deals with a much broader spectrum of characters and circumstances that brisk us through an easy two hours while showing us that sight is not the only sense that justice sometimes lacks.

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