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Published January 16th, 2004 | by Jay Richardson

Runaway Jury Review

Classification: 12A Director: Gary Fleder Rating: 3.5/5

Changing the bad guys of John Grisham’s novel from tobacco corporations to gun manufacturers may have made for a politically hotter potato in the US, but what will intrigue UK audiences most about Runaway Jury is the whole circus surrounding jury selection. The central premise of the drama is that twelve people good and true can be selected, bought, nobbled, probed and incited into returning the right verdict, monitored and manoeuvred by intelligence operations of greater funding and resources than a small country. Or by the mind games of a lone manipulator in their midst. Undoubtedly based on a degree of truth concerning US defence and prosecution teams selecting juries by profiling, Grisham’s imagination has taken the ball and just kept running with it. The result is frankly preposterous, but until the patronising Hollywood ending, fairly engaging in its three-way power struggle.

Nothing befits the grandstanding of court like a heavyweight cast, but though director Gary Fleder has furnished his with Dustin Hoffman, Gene Hackman, John Cusack and Rachel Weisz, their machinations of this trial are conducted largely outside the vision of the judge (a reliably grouchy Bruce McGill). Hoffman plays Wendell Rohr, a principled New Orleans lawyer retained by the widow of a man shot dead in an office massacre by a fellow employee. Seeking a verdict that could cost big gun corporations millions of dollars in precedent, Rohr is suing the manufacturer of the murder weapon on behalf of the dead man’s widow. For the purposes of plot, the murderer has already had the decency to turn the trigger on himself, so the audience’s ire can be fully directed towards the corporation heads – archetypal aging, fat cat, cigar-chompers to an evil scumbag. Their lawyer is Durwood Cable (Bruce Davison, in a similarly spineless turn to his senator role in X-Men), but their ace in the pack is Rankin Fitch (Hackman), Dickensian villain by name and dastardly bastard by profession. With his crack team of minions, Fitch has assembled a command centre to match Jack Bauer’s in 24, an underground lair where he can access the past and secrets of every possible juror in the world and use them to his advantage. His goons and gals use surveillance, intimidation and flirtation to get what they want, even ‘buying’ promotion for one juror to swing his views.

But Fitch hasn’t reckoned on juror number nine, Nick Easter (Cusack), who with his partner Marlee (Weisz) on the outside, has an agenda of his own. Every bit as clever as the wily Fitch and the seasoned Rohr, Easter has purposely found his way into this trial by means too ludicrous for the film not to gloss over. His purpose is simple: he will sway the verdict of his fellow jurors towards the camp that pays him $10m. After initial scoffing from Hack and Hoff, Easter proves he’s serious with some skilful and downright enjoyable psychological games, with Marlee meanwhile playing the two sides off against each other in clandestine restaurant meetings.

From what is cinematically a great central idea, the scriptwriters don’t half strangle the film’s potential, eliminating any shade between the bad and good guys. I’m all for anti-gun propaganda and not hugely bothered about being bludgeoned with it here, but Cusack and Weisz are accomplished enough actors to give their characters greater moral ambiguity. Both are great casting – Weisz does spunky but vulnerable very well and Cusack is perfect as the everyman charmer and quick wit manipulating both the jury and audience. But I would have liked to see Easter really wrestle with his conscience. Similarly, while Rohr is tempted to stray from doing justice by justice, we never really doubt his decency. Hoffman and Hackman are as good as they need to be, which is admittedly pretty damn good. Both chew the scenery satisfyingly, Hoffman almost restrained compared to the “trials are too important to be decided by juries” barks of his counterpart. Their only one-on-one meeting, a kind of NYPD Blue locker room mano-a-mano in the courtroom toilet, is a clichéd exchange, like two aging stags locking horns for the sake of appearances, but it’s hard to think of another pair of actors doing better with it. Fleder directs with enough style to keep it going flat but a little bit more respect for his audience and a less trite ending would have been appreciated.

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