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Runaway Jury

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Runaway Jury

Starring: John Cusack, Rachel Weisz
Director: Gary Felder
Rated: PG-13
RunTime: 127 Minutes
Release Date: October 2003
Genres: Drama, Thriller

*Also starring: Gene Hackman, Dustin Hoffman, Jeremy Piven, Bruce McGill, Nick Searcy, Stanley Anderson, Bruce Davison, Cliff Curtis, Bill Nunn

Review by Harvey Karten
3 stars out of 4

If our Founding Fathers took in Gary Fleder's "Runaway Jury," they would scarcely recognize two amendments of their Bill of Rights that were invoked by scripter Brian Koppelman, David Levien, Rick Cleveland and Matthew Chapman. Oh, they'd like the film just fine. It's paced faster than a speeding bullet, has a modicum of suspense and a groovy twist near the conclusion. But after they checked behind the screen to look for the actors, they'd be wrapped in discussion about Article II of the Bill of Rights, which states, "A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed." They'd wonder how people ever twisted Article VI, "In all...prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury..." Our founders might say that they never intended ordinary civilians to have guns andl would be horrified at the way the right to a trial by an impartial jury got perverted with the emphasis on the word "impartial."

With this adaptation of John Grisham's novel that deals with a lawsuit against the seven big tobacco companies changed by the screenwriters to center on a major corporation selling guns Fleder gives his audience a respite from action- adventure-special-effects cinema and delivers a powerful melodrama which is as improbable as it is potent. "Runaway Jury" may be at heart a soap opera with its tearful widow, its "To Kill a Mockingbird" style oratory, and its frenzied violence and emotions, but it turns Grisham's typically cynical tales of pyrrhic victories into a crowd-pleasing, all-loose-ends-tied-up conclusion.

Who wouldn't be supportive of a woman whose husband was gunned down in his New Orleans brokerage office along with ten others by a disgruntled day trader? She can't sue the killer, who took his own life along with the innocent victims, nor would he likely have the money to make an action against him worthwhile. But she can go a step further and take on the super- rich, arrogant corporation that made the semi-automatic weapon responsible for her husband's death. She could scarcely have made a wiser move than to hire the idealistic Wendell Rohn (Dustin Hoffman) for her counsel but while the defense attorney, Durwood Cable (Bruce Davison) seems a nice enough guy, she did not count on the evil Rankin Fitch (Gene Hackman) to throw several monkey wrenches at the bar.

The major players in this civil action, which opens just two hours after the murders, are jury consultants; people who may or may not sit in the courtroom audience but are busy at work behind the scenes making sure that the good citizens chosen for the case are friendly to their side. At the same time they're willing to invest large sums of money to fix the jury should the chosen ones not be as amenable as they had thought. The consultants are adept at the psychology of body language and able to reach into databases to get information on prospective jurors to intimidate them. When Fitch, prepared to engage in criminal behavior to win his case, is contacted by a mysterious woman named Marlee (Rachel Weisz) through juror Nick Easter (John Cusack), he learns that a verdict can be bought for a heavy price ($10 million). To cover all bases, Easter and Marlee make the same illegal offer to the plaintiff.

"Runaway Jury" could have been a high-minded drama fixing audience eyes on the philosophic aspects of the case; specifically, could we be impartial enough to ignore the tragedy of the woman who lost her husband and leave her bereft of any monetary award because of our belief that the Second Amendment permits no restrictions on the sale of guns? Or would we put aside our fears that a large award could promote all sorts of frivolous cases such as actions against McDonald's for making us fat and against Coca-Cola for rotting our teeth? Such a film could have been a fine entry at Cannes or Telluride or Sundance. Instead, Fleder plays to the bleachers not necessarily a bad idea by throwing in improbable violence such as the torching of a juror's apartment, a chase between the arsonist and the juror, and the beating up of a woman who has possibly overreached her ambition.

The dialogue is crisp, the performances of the ensemble involving seventy-five speaking parts an example of teamwork that could win the pennant if jury trials were the equivalent of major league baseball. Gene Hackman is the perfect villain, oiling his way about the set as he did as the improbable rapist- president in Clint Eastwood's "Absolute Power." Hoffman's goody-goody role does not leave him the same latitude, allowing John Cusack to dominate the story, twisting the jury just like Henry Fonda in Sidney Lumet's "12 Angry Men."

Grisham novels take place in the author's southern territories; Robert Elswit's New Orleans photography, capturing the wrought-iron balconies and the obligatory saxophone playing "When the Saints Go Marching In," provides appropriate ambiance.

Copyright 2003 Harvey Karten

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