Mark Reviews Movies


2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Gary Fleder

Cast: John Cusack, Gene Hackman, Dustin Hoffman, Rachel Weisz, Bruce Davison, Bruce McGill, Jeremy Piven

MPAA Rating:  (for violence, language and thematic elements)

Running Time: 2:07

Release Date: 10/17/03

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Review by Mark Dujsik

John Grisham has made a nice career for himself by taking important social and legal issues and making them the impetus for entertaining potboilers. I learn his 1996 novel The Runaway Jury dealt with a lawsuit against a tobacco company, but for the movie version, the screenwriters have changed it to a case against a gun company. I did not know this until after the movie, and as I think about it, the consequences of the change are twofold.  The switch works against the movie in a fairly large way, but it's also pretty irrelevant. The concept that the tobacco industry lied to the public about the effects of smoking is pretty much legal fact now, so changing the corporate baddies to gun makers is reasonable, simply for its topicality. The law is naturally of little interest to this legal thriller, where the emphasis rests solely on the "thriller" part. The only problem is that America is still in the process of a widespread national debate about gun control, so when absolutely nothing is made of the case at the heart of the story to make room for the chases and behind-closed-doors intrigue, the issue becomes a mere afterthought, which Runaway Jury indifferently exploits for the purpose of escapism.

Nicholas Easter (John Cusack) has just been given notice of jury duty, and it couldn't come at a worse time. A video game football tournament with a big cash prize is upcoming. The case at hand is a civil suit involves the widow of a stockbroker who was one of many shot and killed by an irate former employee who was fired the week before. She's suing the company that manufactured the gun that killed her husband. Her attorney is Wendell Rohr (Dustin Hoffman), an idealistic man who wants to change society with this case. The gun company has hired the assistance of Rankin Fitch (Gene Hackman), an omniscient jury consultant who can find dirt on anyone. Fitch's job is to find a jury that would primarily side with the defense and to manipulate them into giving a favorable verdict if necessary. Nick is taken on as a juror, despite Fitch's fears that he could be risk. As it turns out, he is a substantial risk, as he is working with Marlee (Rachel Weisz) to swing the jury in their favor, which just happens to be whichever side is willing to pay ten million dollars.

Before any of this starts, the movie gives us a scene that shows what happened at the stock brokerage firm. Even with an awkward moment of foreshadowing, it's a disquieting scene. Taking that into consideration, we expect a little more to be made of the gun issue in the movie. As the story advances, though, the screenplay only shows the important parts of the trial, which gives us a sense of how the case is progressing and in whose favor, but there's no development beyond that. Specifics of the case are limited, and instead of trying to determine where we stand, the subject becomes a non-issue. Anyone who thinks the movie takes a stand either for or against gun control or that it makes reasonable arguments for that stand is reaching.  There's a winner in the case, yes, but in the end, we're reminded that it's just part of the trappings of the plot, especially when a school shooting in the past is revealed for the sole purpose of giving motivation to later developments. Instead, the story relies on visceral thrills—chases, fights, and big speeches (complete with big… important… pronouncements)—not intellectual reflection.

On that level, the movie works to a certain extent, although the legal intrigue is restricted to variations of the phrase "buying the jury" and the character examination is restricted to variations of the phrase "everyone has a secret," both of which are tossed around to overuse. Thankfully, the cast helps flesh out these tools of the script with fine performances all around. John Cusack does sufficient work, but it's strange how his character moves into the background as the movie progresses.  Dustin Hoffman mixes passion and desperation as a man of ideals who has been put down many times before and may not have such an opportunity again. Gene Hackman is snide and cunning with a forceful physical presence, serving as an antithesis to Hoffman. The actor's have a scene together in which each attempts to intimidate the other with insight and that serves as a turning point for both of their characters. Rachel Weisz, even though it seems her character is manhandled every time she is confronted, holds her own. She displays the smarts of someone who can play both sides and also gives us moments of doubt in which we can see her wondering if she's perhaps in over her head.

Runaway Jury is never boring but continuously frustrating. The gun issue is entirely immaterial to the plot, but considering how timely and polarizing the topic is in today's political climate, it's surprising and a little unsettling how trivialized it is made. Perhaps I'm being unreasonable or asking for too much, but I simply don't understand how one can set up something this important without taking advantage of its possibilities.

Copyright © 2003 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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