...the first adaptation of a John Grisham novel whose premise and doings I found didn't ring true for a second. Yet I enjoyed the film from beginning to end. Go figure.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

Gene Hackman is a great actor. He never makes bad pictures. Even when the picture could be bad, Hackman's very presence in it makes it better. He has a commanding manner about his performances, and he dominates the screen. There's a self-assurance about him, whether he's playing a good guy or bad, that tells us he, at least, is confident this is a good movie.

Now, throw in other great actors like Dustin Hoffman, John Cusack, and Rachel Weisz, and you've got a cast worth dying for and a film worth watching.

There's only one teensy-weensy thing wrong with this scenario. I didn't believe a word in the whole movie. "Runaway Jury" is the first adaptation of a John Grisham novel whose premise and doings I found didn't ring true for a second. Yet I enjoyed the film from beginning to end. Go figure.

Grisham has been the master of the Hollywood courtroom drama for quite a while now, but this time his backroom skullduggery strikes me as way overdone. The idea of "Runaway Jury" is that juries can be rigged if the right people are involved and enough money is available. Big jury trials like the one depicted in the movie are apparently ripe pickings for people whose business it is to tamper with jury selection and jury members. These people, known as jury consultants, may work for prosecutors or defense teams in selecting members of juries who might lean favorably toward their side, and in the case of "Runaway Jury" these consultants may even intimidate, bribe, and blackmail jury members to render favorable decisions. The first notion I can go along with; lawyers probably do hire consultants on occasion to help them with jury selection. The second notion, however, that consultants can easily manipulate juries during a trial, is more difficult to accept, at least on the grand scale proposed in this film.

Here's the setup: Dustin Hoffman plays lawyer Wendell Rohr, who represents the widow of a man murdered in a shooting spree. The woman is suing the company that manufactured the gun used in the killing, and the gun manufacturer is understandably alarmed, as is the whole arms industry, because a win against the company could set an important precedent for suing gun companies all over the country. Millions, maybe even hundreds of millions, of dollars are at stake, so the gun company in question is willing to hire the best lawyers and the best jury consultant possible to defend themselves.

The consultant the defense hires is Rankin Fitch, played by Gene Hackman. He couldn't be more different from Rohr. Whereas Rohr is a principled idealist, Fitch is an unscrupulous opportunist. He's brilliant, but he's only in it for the money. Fitch doesn't care what he does, whom he hurts, or what laws he breaks to get his way. "Trials are too important to be left to juries," he says. Obviously, he is trying to rig the jury and keep it rigged in favor of his client, the gun company.

Now, at first glance you would think this film is going to be a chess match between Rohr and Fitch, as each man maneuvers for the most favorable positions with the jury. But not so. The real story involves a monkey wrench thrown into the machinery, because there is a third, outside force also attempting to rig the jury and the outcome of the trial, and it is this outside force that is playing on both Rohr and Fitch. The deal is, for the highest price the outside force will swing the verdict to one or the other side. Will Rohr allow his lofty principles to be compromised? And will Fitch, who never loses, allow himself to be manipulated? Not if Fitch can help it, and he's not about to rule out the use of physical violence if he needs to apply it.

John Cusack plays Nick Easter, a video-game store manager who is reluctantly selected as a juror on the trial, and Rachel Weisz plays Marlee, the mysterious outside source who is working with someone inside the jury pool to rig the verdict. Bruce McGill (still most notoriously famous as D-Day in "Animal House") plays Judge Harkin, the no-nonsense Justice presiding over the case.

Could any of the plot's twists and turns actually occur? Possibly. Are they likely to occur? Probably not. Fitch, for instance, not only helps his side select the jury by thoroughly researching the background of each potential jury member, but he directs a control center filled with enough people and electronic equipment to make NASA's command center for the Mars landings look puny. Moreover, he has thugs at his disposal who will stop at nothing, including arson and murder, to get their way.

What starts out as a conventional jury-trial procedural turns into an action thriller and concludes with a genuine surprise. The movie throws in a little of everything along the way, but credibility is not one of them. Instead, the acting is its strong suit, with the confrontation between Rohr and Fitch but one of many gripping scenes. Will the movie have a typical Hollywood ending? Will good prevail? Will the outside force count for anything in the long run of things?

"Runaway Jury" is, as I've said, too exaggerated to buy into entirely, but at the same time it's the kind of film you can't miss a minute of, or you're in danger of losing whole new plot twists. Thus, you're hooked, not only on the script and its convoluted turns of events, but on the acting, which is close to mesmerizing. Great film? No. Good film. Certainly.

The DVD transfers from Twentieth Century Fox are usually among the best in the business, and this one, while not quite up to their usual standards, is pretty good. Colors, especially, come off as quite natural and realistic, bright but never garish. But I have a few nagging quibbles. The overall contrast is quite dark, even in daylight shots, perhaps an intentional tonal tint to compliment the film's darker, shadier business, yet it never admits much detail into shadowy areas of the frame. There is also some minor color bleed-through and an occasional fine grain. No moiré effects, jittery lines, haloes, or pixilation are on display, though, and the image is presented in an anamorphic widescreen ratio of 2.13:1, approximating its theatrical-release dimensions.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 sound reproduction does its job in a perfectly adequate, if perfectly perfunctory, way. Dynamics are wide, and impact, as from gunshots, is strong. The frequency range is never called upon to extend itself much, nor is the front stereo spread particularly broad, except on those few occasions when it needs to be. This movie is, after all, largely dialogue driven, putting its action and thrills on the back burner. Which leads me to a final observation on the surround sound from the back speakers; namely, that the surrounds are used almost exclusively for musical ambiance enhancement rather than any obvious rear-channel effects. A little traffic noise, some courtroom chatter, that kind of thing is about all they need to convey, but it's enough to add a little depth to the verisimilitude of the situations.

For a single disc, this one contains a good number of useful extras. The first is, of course, a commentary by the director, Gary Fleder. Even more important, though, is a fourteen-minute segment called "Exploring the Scene," wherein Hackman and Hoffman discuss and analyze their first scene together, followed by "Off the Cuff," a nine-minute conversation between Hackman and Hoffman, plus a pair of scene-specific commentaries narrated by one and the other man. Great stuff for film buffs and would-be filmmakers. Next, there are two deleted scenes, with or without director commentary, and then five featurettes: "The Making-of Runaway Jury," "The Ensemble: Acting," "Light and Shadow: Cinematography," "A Vision of New Orleans: Production Design," and "Rhythm: The Craft of Editing," each lasting from five to twelve minutes. Finally, there are twenty-eight scene selections and a trailer for Denzel Washington's "Man on Fire," but, oddly, no trailer for "Runaway Jury." Fox provide spoken languages in English, French, and Spanish and subtitles in English and Spanish.

Parting Thoughts:
Grisham's novels have enjoyed a remarkably successful run on the big screen. Starting with "The Firm" and "The Pelican Brief" in 1993, through "The Client" (1994), "The Chamber" (1996), "A Time to Kill" (1996), and "The Rainmaker" (1997), his jury-trial thrillers have continued to fascinate and entertain audiences. While "Runaway Jury" may not paint as convincing a picture of the courtroom and courtroom tactics as the author's previous efforts, with its superlative cast giving it their all and director Gary Fleder moving it along at a healthy clip, it's easy to suspend one's disbelief and go along with the shenanigans. The movie's other virtue is that no matter how far-fetched the shenanigans become, they never insult the audience's intelligence. Perry Mason never had it so good.


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