Movie Review
Runaway Jury
Runaway Jury poster
By Stephen Lucas     Published October 28, 2003
US Release: October 17, 2003

Directed by: Gary Fleder
Starring: John Cusack , Rachel Weisz , Gene Hackman , Orlando Jones

Running Time: 127 minutes
Domestic Box Office: $49,441,000
Utilizes its cast with a suitable script, accentuating an intriguing angle to a typical trial situation, and story-enhancing tension between the characters involved.
John Grisham is the mainstream king of the court; when it comes to literary legal deliberation, millions of readers have turned to his novels for both entertainment and education of the legal system. Picking up on Grisham?s success, the movie industry has made movie adaptations of his best sellers a top priority, and in turn, readers and moviegoers alike have made seeing those films of the same importance. Having grown up on reading his novels (my favorite of which is the still non-produced The Street Lawyer, although a TV series for ABC is rumored), I?m partial to the films inspired by his novels.

The latest of them is an onscreen version of The Runaway Jury, perhaps one of the best known Grisham?s novels, with an all-star cast including Gene Hackman, John Cusack, Dustin Hoffman, and Rachel Weisz. For those unaware (despite all of the hype), this entry marks the first (and hopefully, not last) teaming up of long-time friends Hackman and Hoffman on film. Directed by Garry Fleder (?Don?t Say a Word,? ?Kiss the Girls?), the film will undoubtedly be compared to other Grisham-inspired movies such as ?The Firm,? ?A Time to Kill,? and ?The Pelican Brief.?

How does it fare? Pretty well, actually ? I?ll go out on a limb to say that ?Runaway Jury? is just as good as ?The Firm,? which was my previous favorite of the lot. ?Jury? skillfully avoids sliding under heavy clich?s that have often killed similar pictures and doesn?t try to build suspense by only loud, dramatic scores.

Instead, ?Runaway Jury? utilizes its cast with a suitable script, accentuating an intriguing angle to a typical trial situation, and story-enhancing tension between the characters involved. Though a few stipulations are stitched in-between the lines, there is no denying that this film -- one of the year?s most engaging -- is worth a fair and just trial-by-audience.

Unlike the novel, the film adaptation of ?Runaway Jury? tackles the gun industry as opposed to the cigarette companies focused on by the source material. Either the production wanted to be more of the times (?The Insider? ended anti-cig hype and ?Bowling for Columbine? seems to have ignited anti-gun discussions) or they wanted to get as far away from Grisham?s book as possible; I?d voucher that it may have been a combination of the two.

The film opens with a very personal and grainy home video of a normal family in which a toddler is having his birthday party. The father (Dylan McDermott), a lawyer, is all smiles in the video, singing along with his son, and is likewise on his way to work the next day. Handing coffee to and making small talk with his assistant, he is unaware of what will happen in mere seconds. Gunshots fire out across the office and screaming erupts; in the haste of the situation, he is killed at gunpoint.

Two years later, the (gun) company that dealt the firearms that killed McDermott is on trial, with his wife on the other side of the courtroom. The question looming over this case, like many similar ones in this country, is if companies supplying materials used in fatal acts should be liable or not. (Example: Should Marlboro be blamed for the millions of deaths smoking has caused in its history?) Regardless of your own personal opinion, the film takes a rather liberal position ? it?s almost one-sided in its contemplation of the case.

Though a controversial topic, this film isn?t about that for the most part. The title of the film features the word ?Jury,? which, in all its grander, is what this film explores; let?s just say that you might be more suspicious being chosen for jury duty after seeing this movie.

Gene Hackman plays a ruthless jury consultant named Rankin Fitch, whom, with all he has, helps pick, persuade, and keep a jury that will ultimately hand him the verdict he or his client wants. In this case, he?s helping the gun companies keep this particular case quiet. On the other side of the courtroom is Dustin Hoffman as the lawyer opposing these companies, representing the wife of the gun victim.

John Cusack, whom I?m proud to announce is not starring in a film as dim-witted as his last (?Identity?), portrays Nick Easter. This is your typical, everyday American who just recently has been called to serve his country being on a municipal jury. Easter (unknowingly) is about to be enveloped in Fitch?s intricate plan, a mere pawn in the scheme of things ? or is he? He and Marlee (his presumed girlfriend) are intent on beating and tampering with the system in order to get them a fair sum of money.

Rather than spending most of the film?s 127-minute running time inside the courtroom following the case at hand, we?re instead taken into the workings behind the case. It interested me to see how they analyzed people for selection, how to push their buttons, why people get replaced, and other exceedingly manipulative and invasive practices that most likely go on in the ?real world,? making it all the more intriguing. Yet this carousel of lies, money, and injustice could have been thrown off its axis by ill-placed factors or scenes.

The reason why most thrillers have an ultimately lukewarm effect is that they try to be too crafty and it comes off as illogical and/or cheesy. I may not have been surprised at all during ?Runaway Jury,? but there?s no denying that there are slight and swift twists in the story. Too often it seems that courtroom thrillers try and bring some mundane character or fact into the limelight at the very end of a movie to change the entire scope of the plot.

Note to filmmakers: it doesn?t work that way! Make this movie an example ? you don?t always have to blow the entire movie for a cheap thrill at the end; instead, build suspense and give us (the audience) a good, efficient payoff.

I?m not entirely sure if ?Runaway Jury? brings much to the table, but I think parts of it work so well that people should take notice. Most obvious of which is that the cast is just as they seem they would be together: impeccable. Each of them stands on their own with their co-stars on screen; not one of them particularly stands out as being exceptional compared to the others.

Hoffman?s performance is actually the one I enjoyed the most, even if his role isn?t as meaty as that of the other actors onscreen. He performs just as he should: focused, persistent, and subtle. Don?t let that fool you, though, as the other actors are equally well-cast; though it may be clich? to say the cast is worth the price of your ticket, I have to agree in this case.

More often than not, if a critic says a film is really ?just entertainment,? that usually means that the film isn?t very good but they enjoyed it ? which is fine from time to time; I enjoyed the first ?Tomb Raider? even if I?ll admit that movie is terrible. The entertainment value of ?Runaway? is well earned and not conjured up by gimmicks or sideshows ? neither is prevalent.

If there is one stipulation in seeing this film, it is that the legal process it practices in the courtroom is rather laissez-faire. Granted, the film doesn?t concern itself too much with the issue of the gun control case ? only taking small jabs at the issue at hand ? instead focusing on the jury; it makes sense as a more accurate portrayal of courtroom activities considering that they aren?t necessarily the focus.

What is focused on, though, is what is important; smart, organized storytelling, spot-on acting, and taking an interesting angle on the courtroom drama and executing it are what are clearly important in ?Runaway Jury.? This may not be the most legally enlightening film to hit the screen from Grisham, but it is perhaps one of the most enjoyable and adequate.

Walking out of the theater, I felt satisfied with what I had seen in the last two hours, which says a lot more than a good number of films released this year. My verdict is in, and I advise you to do your duty as a movie buff and be part of the jury.
Stephen's Grade: B+
Stephen's Overall Grading: 23 graded movies
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