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Stars: Gene Hackman, Dustin Hoffman, John Cusack Rachel Weisz, Bruce Davison, Bruce McGill, Jeremy Piven, Nick Searcy, Cliff Curtis, Bill Nunn and Jennifer Beals
Director: Gary Fleder
Scriptwriters: Brian Koppelman and David Levien (based on the novel by John Grisham)
Music by Christopher Young
20th Century Fox/Regency Films
Running Time: Two hours
Rating: PG 13
When novelist John Grisham’s name is linked to a project you know there were will be an intelligent plot with enough twists and turns to keep your mind occupied. Not that Runaway Jury is intelligentsia personified, but when you have Gene Hackman and Dustin Hoffman in the same scene comparing legal values, it beats a hundred and one Madonna films. This reviewer did not read Runaway Jury, but you don’t have to in order to enjoy the film.
The story begins with a shooting rampage at a brokerage house. The camera follows one person through the day until the shooting. This person is a major television star and doing a cameo here. Fast forward several years to a New Orleans trial in which the widow is taking a certain gun manufacturer to court for sloppy supervision and record keeping, thus allowing, for example, over 60 semi-automatic weapons in three months to be sold to one person. The salesperson even got a paid trip for selling so much, no questions asked. The plaintiff’s lawyer is Dustin Hoffman in a down home-aw, shucks kind of role in which he purposely wears mismatched clothing to look like Everyman. On the other side is lawyer Bruce Davison, a pawn of Gene Hackman, who has been hired by the gun manufacturer to fix the jury. Hackman is a specialist and confident that he and his team can sway any jury. His motto is “Trials are too important to be left up to jurors.” Enter John Cusack who manages to get onto the jury and then the psychological manipulation begins. Just who is working who and for what purpose? Rachel Weisz is supposedly Cusack’s girlfriend, but what is her true agenda? Then there is the judge, Kansas City actor Bruce McGill, who turns away from seeming improprieties. In real life, no sequestered juror would be allowed a pager, but gosh, Cusack manages to have one. Also, there is the disappearing and reappearing newspaper from Cusack’s hand, either he is littering or someone didn’t make a final film check.
Runaway Jury is a tightly woven story with elaborate electronics that shows what big money can do to the American judicial system. It is also an indictment against gun sales. Every person has their weak spot and if you have enough money or enough brutality, you can sway anyone to your side. We are all puppets, Grisham seems to be saying, and the lead string goes to greed, profits and money. This is shown in a scene when Hackman gets extra millions from his boss to buy the jury. He has their mindsets and knows where to strike. The gun manufacturer wants “less mouse and more cat.”
A wonderful scene in acting skill is when Hackman goes into a restroom to wash his hands and Hoffman comes behind him, locks the door, and they begin their verbal battle on good and bad legalities. Hackman, the taller, looms over Hoffman like a King Cobra on the prowl. Here is about 60 years of acting skill on the screen and it is a pleasure to watch. On the other hand, Cusack, no slouch in the acting department, gets to fine tune himself as he sits on the jury and tries to hide his feelings. Ah, the performances yet to come in his future.
Rachel Weisz has a dramatic action scene where she tries to fend off an attacker, but that is her main scene, otherwise her acting is stilted compared to the rest of the cast. Her character had way too much reserve. The jury members, including Jennifer Beals, each give life to their characters so that you are drawn into their predicaments. This is what makes America, the average guy or gal, and jury duty is your opportunity to be part of democracy. The true way, that is, and not the manipulative kind.
Runaway Jury certainly had my attention. Even though there are flaws (open windows in a jury room are just right for tossing items out), the film moves at a fast pace. The audience goes back and forth from the plaintiff’s side to the defendant’s side, with a third agenda in-between. In a Grisham novel, there is always a major problem, several ways to solve the problem, and colorful characters in the mix. Whatever your position on gun control, the film presents its argument through the scenario of mass killings, which unfortunately, can happen anywhere, anytime. One doesn’t have to be in a foreign country to be in a war zone; sometimes it may be your own office building or school.
Copyright 2003 Marie Asner