It’s not just the jurors who are angry in “Runaway Jury.” Everybody’s riled up here: The gun manufacturing defendants over being sued for liability in a shooting rampage, the jury “consultants” over being manipulated by some devious moles who claim the ability to swing the verdict, and the prosecution over the leniency of gun laws. The extreme emotions generated by the issues and events in a loose adaptation of John Grisham’s 1996 novel guarantee some high voltage scenes for the large and fine cast assembled for this better-than-average Grisham legal thriller, which looks to run off with a gratifying autumn B.O. haul.
With the standard Grisham formula having grown stale after so many books and film versions, “Jury” introduces ingredients that add zest to the old recipe and, in cinematic terms, open up increased possibilities for intrigue and narrative layering. New spicing pertains to the phenomenon of jury consultants who cherry pick jurors based upon perceived predilections and biases, and to the more far-fetched but dramatically provocative notion that someone with a specific political agenda could scheme both to get on a particular jury and to bend it to his desired result.
With the quartet of screenwriters having switched the villain from big tobacco, as in the novel, to a gun manufacturer, the film brandishes an obvious political agenda of its own. From portraying the firearms magnate as an insensitive Southern fat cat and his legal rep an avowedly amoral and cynical “pragmatist” — and presenting the shooting victim in an ultra-sentimentalized manner and his widow’s counsel as that endangered species, an honorable and principled attorney — pic takes a propagandistic, typically Hollywood good guy-bad guy approach to a complex issue like other recent emotionally manipulative pieces as “John Q” and “The Life of David Gale.”
But even as it presumes a similar mindset on the part of its audience, “Runaway Jury” is considerably more absorbing than either of those clunky commentaries. Anxious to make history by pinning legal responsibility for gun violence on those who make the weapons, vet New Orleans lawyer Wendell Rohr (Dustin Hoffman) takes the case of a woman whose husband was among 11 people killed in an office shooting spree.
Just as in tobacco-related death cases, the stakes for the defendants run to many millions of dollars. So while the weapons firm is officially represented by plodding attorney Durwood Cable (Bruce Davison), the real power behind the case is the Machiavellian Rankin Fitch (Gene Hackman), a supremely confident and cutthroat jury consultant whose techniques for pigeonholing selective panelists — and digging up dirt to blackmail them into seeing things his way –have been honed to near-perfection.
Operating out of a makeshift command post in the Latin Quarter that, from the looks of it, could have cost the gun company a year’s profits to equip and staff, Fitch uses high-tech gadgets to secretly view potential jurors as they’re interviewed in court and to signal Cable re his selections. But although Fitch approves him, it’s apparent early on that one joker has found his way into the deck — Nick Easter (John Cusack) just wants onto this case too badly; with his girlfriend Marlee (Rachel Weisz), he’s clearly up to some dirty pool of his own.
What Nick’s tricks are, and how the superficially mild-mannered guy intends to subvert the legal system for his own ends, constitutes a continuing mystery that runs parallel to Fitch’s more overt efforts to commandeer the judicial process. Just to make sure the audience knows what to think of Fitch, scripters give him lines like, “I hate Baptists about as much as I hate Democrats” and “Trials are too important to be left to juries,” and while Hackman socks these and other juicy nuggets over as well as anyone in the business, the character could have been considerably more intriguing if he had been endowed with some internal contradictions and paradoxes.
Some of the crucial dramatic underpinning operates along similarly simplistic lines. In selecting jurors, Fitch operates on the assumption that everyone has something in their pasts so unsavory as to constitute a basis for blackmail, a proposition plainly untrue. But as both prosecutors and defense become unsettled by cryptic communications that the jury is for sale to the highest bidder, Fitch becomes convinced that Nick is a con man and sends a goon to the latter’s apartment to unearth evidence, which ends up backfiring when the jury is thereafter sequestered.
Just as Nick spins his fellow jurors and Fitch muscles vulnerable panelists, Marlee, first furtively by note and phone and eventually in face-to-face meetings, hustles both Fitch and Rohr, promising a favorable verdict to the highest bidder.
The writers and director Gary Fleder do a good job of dramatically shuffling these cards to protract the disclosure of Nick and Marlee’s motivation as long as possible, although it’s blatantly clear almost from the beginning how the deck is stacked narratively and ideologically. In the end, the film reveals itself to be as agenda-driven as its leading characters.
Cast has a grand time with the tale’s histrionic possibilities; crises and confrontations are served up like clockwork, and while Grisham and his screen translators are far from possessing the verbal flair and sense of irony of the best courtroom dramatists, they do put the meat and potatoes on the table. Like his character, Cusack plays his cards close to his vest, which keeps the audience guessing, and Weisz is in spirited form as his conspirator in love and deceit. Although not exactly one’s idea of a Southern gent, Hoffman pinpoints the essence of a man whose spirit of justice and fair play cannot be corrupted, and thesp, like the character, has a good time with the carefully calculated details of his wardrobe.
Among the many supporting players, Bruce McGill makes an imposingly efficient judge, Marguerite Moreau offsets Hackman effectively as Fitch’s sharp and attractive assistant, Gerry Bamman does a nice job as the (symbolically) blind jury foreman, and Cliff Curtis stands out as a former master sergeant who passionately articulates the case against blaming the gun manufacturers; very much missing is a scene showing how Nick might have changed this man’s mind.
As always, New Orleans provides a flavorsome backdrop to a melodramatic story festooned with shady goings-on, an effect maximized by Robert Elswit’s textured lensing and sharp production and costume design.