Earlier this year, Morgan Creek hit the jackpot with the Jim Carrey breakthrough “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective.” Whatever the secret of that film’s appeal, B.O. lightning will not strike again with Morgan Creek’s courtroom melodrama “Trial by Jury,” even if at times the pic draws bigger laughs than “Ace.”
Unfortunately, the howls elicited by “Jury” are all unintentional, the result of a preposterous, cliche-ridden screenplay co-authored by Jordan Katz and director Heywood Gould. Even charismatic top-rank stars like William Hurt, Gabriel Byrne and Joanne Whalley-Kilmer can’t resuscitate this leaden-paced legal thriller. The script’s troubles begin immediately, when the key government witness in the murder and racketeering trial of John Gotti-like crime boss Rusty Pirone (Armand Assante) is murdered in an unbelievable fashion. Either the cops protecting the witness are the worst boys in blue since the Keystone days, or the writers can’t find a way to jump-start a story that seems belabored only minutes after the opening credits.
The only saving grace at the outset is Kathleen Quinlan’s nice ‘n’ nasty turn as Wanda, a hard-bitten hooker/contract killer. That her character is never developed beyond her leather mini, tattoos and stiletto is only one of the pic’s wasted assets.
Trying hard to put Pirone away is Byrne’s U.S. Attorney Daniel Graham, laboring in a stock role as a crusading good boy from the same bad neighborhood as Pirone. All that’s missing is Pat O’Brien as the kindly priest and the Bowery Boys for local color and comic relief. Sad to report, help like Leo Gorcey and Huntz Hall never arrives.
Instead, Valerie Alston (Whalley-Kilmer) strolls into the trial, an idealistic single mom who runs an antique clothing store in Manhattan, oblivious to the fact that she’s been picked for the most dangerous jury duty assignment since, well, the John Gotti trial. She wakes up to the possibility that sending a mob boss to the gas chamber could be hazardous to her health only after disgraced ex-cop Tommy Vesey (Hurt) and a gang of thugs straight out of “Mod Squad” kidnap her in broad daylight. The plan is to scare Alston into hanging up the jury.
An unrequited love story of sorts develops between Vesey and Alston, and Pirone also falls for the pert brunette, though his affection is deadly and propelled by self-interest. To prove his power over her, he pays a nocturnal visit to her apartment, and he’s so over-the-top evil that he could have turned into a bat as he left.
By the pic’s draggy third act, the legal tables are turned upside down, and the denouement involves Alston’s conversion from well-meaning citizen into the hit-mom from hell.
With cinematographer Frederick Elmes’ atmospheric lensing, Hurt and Quinlan’s dark turns as menacing mob torpedoes, and enough laughable dialogue to fill a camp film festival, all “Jury” needed was a director willing to take the film all the way into the realm of courtroom-thriller parody. Director Gould, the writer behind the Tom Cruise starrer “Cocktail,” apparently didn’t see the possibilities in the frothy concoction he’s cooked up here with co-writer Katz. Just imagine the opportunities in a pic with a crime boss named Rusty.
Compared with some of television’s dramatically compelling, diligently researched courtroom dramas like “Law & Order,” film auds will send this pic straight to the video slammer.