Mixed verdict for Runaway Jury

BY LYNN LEE

“Runaway Jury,” the latest John Grisham movie adaptation, offers little in the way of insight into the workings of jury selection or jury deliberations. What it does offer is reasonably competent, disposable entertainment, notched up a class by the collective talent of its high-powered cast. This isn’t a movie that anyone should feel a compelling need to see, but those who want to see it will likely be satisfied they’re getting their money’s worth.

A healthy suspension of disbelief is required for any Grisham plot, the rewards being a briskly paced, gripping narrative drive and glossily attractive protagonists who you can be fairly confident will defeat the villainous conspiracies arrayed against them. “Runaway Jury” is no exception in this regard, though the movie does significantly alter one major plot point from the book: the novel centered around a lawsuit against big tobacco, whereas in the movie the target is a gun manufacturer. I guess the idea is that the claim is supposed to be novel and practically unwinnable – obviously no longer true in the case of big tobacco.

Whatever the reasons, the suit is launched following the death of the plaintiff’s stockbroker husband in a mass shooting in his office building. The trial takes place in New Orleans. On the side of the good is Dustin Hoffman as plaintiff’s counsel Wendell Rohr; on the side of the bad is (who else?) Gene Hackman as expert jury “consultant” Rankin Fitch. Fitch guarantees a jury’s verdict – for a stiff price. He delivers it by having a crew of researchers dig up all inculpatory personal information on every potential juror, which he then uses for the purpose of jury selection and, in due course, manipulation through blackmail. But what neither side expects is the appearance of two people bent on manipulating the jury for their own hefty price. One is Nick Easter (John Cusack), a game store manager who finagles his way onto the jury despite Fitch’s misgivings about his blank past. The other is a mysterious woman named Marlee (Rachel Weisz) who works with Nick from the outside. Together, they play Rohr and Fitch against each other, offering the desired verdict to either for $10 million. Let the games begin.

This is the first movie to star Hackman and Hoffman opposite each other, and unfortunately their one scene of direct confrontation, which was written into the movie, feels much too staged. Independently, however, they lend weight to what would otherwise be pretty standard cardboard roles. Hackman, in particular, could do this part in his sleep. However, the bad guys here don’t seem nearly as threatening here as they do in other Grisham movies, mainly because Fitch always seems to be just one step behind Nick and Marlee.

It’s in fact the two leads, and the mystery surrounding them – what they’re in it for, where they come from, what their relationship really is – that give the film its juice. Cusack turns in a particularly fine performance as the funny, amicable guy to whom there’s a whole lot more than meets the eye. Nick’s interactions with his fellow jurors are a hoot, while his meetings with Marlee suggest depths that probably aren’t even in the original novel. Weisz for her part does hardboiled very well (you’d never guess she was a Brit, from the nasal flatness of her American accent), which makes it all the more effective whenever she drops a fleeting glimpse of vulnerability, or some clue to her motives flickers in her eyes.

Despite its glib ending, “Runaway Jury,” to its credit, doesn’t take the moral high ground (unlike last year’s stinker “The Life of David Gale,” which makes this movie look like a masterpiece). In the end, whether or not the gun manufacturers are or should be liable for negligent distribution or product design is not really the point. The point is the thrill of the game, of turning the hunter into the hunted, and of keeping everyone guessing as to how and why the verdict will turn out the way it does. At that level, “Runaway Jury” works beautifully, for all its numerous implausible contrivances. It’s a professional job, all around.

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