Runaway Jury

Written by:
Arthur Lazere
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the novel on which

the film is based

For those who can easily suspend disbelief, Runaway Jury will make amusing entertainment; for those with a tendency towards raising questions, it might still be fun, if for no other reason than to see a couple of veteran actors and a couple of younger ones chewing up the scenery.

The screenplay by Brian Koppelman (Rounders) is based on a novel from the factory called John Grisham. It is centered on a trial in which the widow of a shooting victim is suing the gun manufacturer for damages. That premise, of course, offers a great soapbox for bashing an industry that profits in death and the script does just that, utterly demonizing the miserable merchants of mayhem (who will find no defense here, to be sure).

On the other hand, Mr. Koppelman would have served the cause better if he had kept inmind that a more subtle villain and a less single-minded exposition of the issues would have made victory so much sweeter and more satisfying than setting up a sitting duck and firing at it with an automatic.Be that as it may, it turns out that the plot is less about the culpability of gun manufacturers than it is about the American justice system, which, as portrayed here, is up for grabs by the biggest spender and the most clever manipulator of juries.

Wendell Rohr (Dustin Hoffman with a drawl) is counsel for the plaintiff, a true believer in the cause and a person of principle–it’s the role that Jimmy Stewart would have played a few decades back. Rohr hires a jury "consultant," a specialist on the legal team who assists counsel in jury selection, presumably armed with special insight and experience in selecting jurors who will come down on the right side and identifying the jurors who won’t so that they can be challenged. So far, so good.

Durwood Cable (Bruce Davison), the defense counsel, however, has hired a specialist of a different order. Rankin Fitch (Gene Hackman, missing only a set of fangs) is a thoroughly unprincipled operator who uses a staff of (seemingly) thousands and the latest computer and surveillance technology to find out everything there is to know about every juror, not only for purposes of jury selection, but to later use their weaknesses to exert pressure on the way the juror will vote. In short, it is blatant, if sophisticated, tampering. Credulity is stretched to the breaking point here–could they possibly get away with hidden television cameras in the courtroom, beaming pictures of every courtroom detail back to their command post, while counsel in court wears a tiny receiver behind his ear to get running instructions back from Fitch? If the system has been so subverted, it’s time to move to Vancouver.

And then there is a mysterious juror, Nicholas Easter (John Cusack in his always top form), who seems to know an awful lot about the other jury members as well. He turns out to be working with a confederate, Marlee (Rachel Weisz), and they have an agenda of their own, playing counsel for both sides against each other for a big payoff. (While Fitch uses his high tech communications, Easter contacts Weisz by throwing a crumpled up note out the window.) Even Rohr finds himself ready to play the game, but Jimmy Stewart always had to have his principles tested under pressure before the movie was over.

Give director Gary Fleder (Don’t Say a Word) credit for keeping things moving along at a crisp pace. He also does a fine job of giving the film a sense of place–New Orleans looks thoroughly inviting with shots of the Mississipi winding its way through the city, the French Quarter, streetcars, fountains plashing, street musicians, and restaurants, just the sight of which call up the tastes of jambalaya and warm cornbread.

Corn may be the operative word here.

Arthur Lazere

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