The courtroom potboiler, a story-and-suspense-driven genre virtually created for the novels by John Grisham and their cinematic adaptations, gains a new entry in "Runaway Jury." Competently directed by Gary Fleder, the film is far from perfect and follows a few too many of the conventions of court dramas, but holds enough crafty twists and narrative intrigue to remain a solid entertainment. It doesn't hurt that the four lead actorsJohn Cusack (2003's "Identity
"), Gene Hackman (2001's "Behind Enemy Lines
"), Dustin Hoffman (2002's "Moonlight Mile
"), and Rachel Weisz (2003's "The Shape of Things
"), respectivelycreate one of the most mesmerizing ensembles of the year.
Two years after the fatal office shooting of a husband/father (Dylan McDermott), a major civil trial is about to get under way in New Orleans against the major gun manufacturer whose product the murderer used. Representing the victim's widow (Joanna Going) is do-gooder attorney Wendell Rohr (Dustin Hoffman), while defending the gun company is the crooked Durwood Cable (Bruce Davison). In choosing the trial's jury members, the gun manufacturer has enlisted the services of the slippery, powerful Rankin Fitch (Gene Hackman), who misjudges the intentions of seemingly disinterested juror Nick Easter (John Cusack). Aided on the outside by his girlfriend, Marlee (Rachel Weisz), Nick plots to gain his fellow jurors' trust and wave the trial's verdict in either direction based on which sidethe morally conflicted Rohr's or the crooked, slimy Fitch'scoughs up his $10-million demand the fastest.
If 1994's "The Client" and 1996's "A Time To Kill" are the best of the John Grisham adaptations and 1993's "The Pelican Brief" and 1996's "The Chamber" are among the worst, then "Runaway Jury" falls squarely in the middle alongside 1999's "The Rainmaker." The film captures your attention right away with an unnervingly effective prologue before embroiling you in a highly charged central plot that leaves you guessing exactly what the intentions of some of the characters are. Additionally, the idea of Nick and Marlee using their intelligence and savvy know-how to manipulate the trial participants is a novel one. While some of the story developments are predictable (such as the actual verdict of the trial), there are also a fair share of worthwhile surprises.
The centerpiece of "Runaway Jury" fittingly arrives midway through in a marvelously acted scene between Gene Hackman and Dustin Hoffman where its pulp intensity ratchets to a startlingly high level. Hoffman's Wendell Rohr has just discovered the shady dealings of Hackman's despicable Rankin Fitch, and he confronts him in the courthouse bathroom, warning him that the unethical things he does for a living will eventually catch up to him. This is not the best scene of the film because of the first-ever appearance together of Hoffman and Hackman, but because it is the most focused, the most beautifully written and acted, and flawless in the characters' interplay.
As protagonists Nick and Marlee, John Cusack and Rachel Weisz are seriously talented performers who make you want to root for them. In this picture's case, however, the lines between who these people are and where their true motives stand is never fully unveiled until the third act. While this mystery adds complexity to the narrative and grows crystal clear by the end, the viewer tends to sometimes get confused in the meantime over why, exactly, they should be liking Nick and Marlee. In such tricky roles, Cusack and Weisz are superb.
If "Runaway Jury" works quite well as a thriller, a mystery, and a political statement on the value of laws and ethics, it is problematic when it comes to the handling of the courtroom scenes and, most jarring of all, its jurors. While what surrounds the trial sequences is where the heart of this film lies, courtroom movies requires at least a few scenes of memorable witnesses and sharp observation. "Runaway Jury" does not succeed on this count. The court scenes are generally rushed and disposable. The film's largest misstep, however, is its threadbare development of Nick's fellow jurors, vital characters because their decision plays a role in the entire plot's outcome, but who are treated as inconsequential at best. As the jurors, talented character actors such as Nora Dunn (2003's "Out of Time
"), Luis Guzman (2003's "Anger Management
"), Bill Nunn (2002's "Spider-Man
"), Rusty Schwimmer (2000's "The Perfect Storm
"), and Jennifer Beals (2002's "Roger Dodger
") are wasted beyond explanation.
And yet "Runaway Jury" works. As a smart, adult-minded entertainment that explores a serious subject in the seeming form of page-turning beach read, the film is disposably electric and solidly crafted. Even when the story specifics and the supporting characters aren't always at the top of their game, the four sterling lead actors are. For the power-hungry ferocity of Gene Hackman's Rankin Fitch and the virtuous, quietly imploding force of Dustin Hoffman's Wendell Rohr alone, "Runaway Jury" is worth seeing.