It took so long to adapt John Grisham’s best seller “Runaway Jury” for the big screen that the focus of the story’s central lawsuit had to be changed. In the book, a tobacco company is held liable for a death caused by smoking cigarettes. When Grisham wrote the book, lawsuits against tobacco companies were unheard of. Today, they are not. So in Gary Fleder’s film version, a gun manufacturer becomes the defendant in a civil suit following a horrific workplace shooting that has left several people dead. Although that seems like a pretty significant change, Runaway Jury works as a film because the story has always been about an attempt to sway a verdict in a certain direction; as long as we believe the outcome of the trail is critical to all involved, the suit itself is just a side note.
The movie opens with a frightening scene in which an unseen gunman opens fire in a crowded office building. The wife of one victim hires Wendall Rohr (Dustin Hoffman), an idealistic but shrewd New Orleans attorney, to help her sue the company that made the automatic rifle used by the shooter. (She and Rohr contend the company actually pitched its product to criminals.) The defense is led by Durwood Cable (Bruce Davison), who brings in a ferocious jury consultant named Rankin Fitch (Gene Hackman). Fitch takes a no-holds-barred approach to his job, and it makes it clear to everyone that he intends to get a jury that will deliver a favorable verdict.
What neither Fitch nor Rohr counts on is Nick Easter (John Cusack), a.k.a. Juror #9. Although he initially appears to be avoiding jury duty, Easter is actually attempting to throw the verdict. His girlfriend and partner Marlee (Rachel Weisz) contacts both sides, announcing that she can deliver a verdict to whoever pays her. No one believes her, until she and Nick provide a small demonstration of his influence among the other jurors. Because neither side wants a mistrial or a delay, Rohr and Fitch both begin negotiations. Rohr is the more tentative of the two, believing that his client holds the moral high ground. He thinks there’s a chance of winning without jury tampering, but he stays in contact with Marlee just to keep channels open. Fitch, meanwhile, becomes furious that someone might take away his verdict. He uses his arsenal of surveillance experts and goons to investigate, threaten, and intimidate the members of the jury. Fitch is prepared to fight.
While all this takes place, Easter slowly insinuates himself into a position of power on the jury. By taking a “simple guy” approach, he befriends most of the others while continually presenting a common sense approach toward the lawsuit. Occasionally, he sneaks off and confers with Marlee, and we get a feeling that they are up to something else. (Those of us who read the book know exactly what they are up to.)
Runaway Jury goes into a lot of detail showing the backstage machinations of this trail. We see characters dealing and double-dealing, working together or opposing one another, making deals and breaking deals. I always thought this was the story John Grisham had to tell. The whole idea of jury tampering is perfect for a legal thriller, and no one could do it with as much finesse as the most popular writer of legal thrillers in the history of publishing. What’s amazing is that, as complicated and elaborate as the book’s plot is, the movie keeps everything understandable without sacrificing the overall intelligence level. I was always able to keep the characters straight, and I knew what they were thinking and doing every step of the way. Very little here has been “simplified” for movie form; Fleder and his screenwriters assume the audience is capable of keeping up with the fast pace of the story. I thought some of the other Grisham adaptations were dumbed down – their hearts and souls stripped away for fear of being too “legal” for audiences. This one knows that we want to see all the legal wheelings and dealings, and it delivers them to us.
Naturally, with a cast like this, you can safely expect solid performances. I thought Dustin Hoffman’s character was never developed quite enough, which makes his performance seem less substantial. However, Cusack, Weisz, and Hackman all shine. Cusack plays a sort-of everyman who is a master manipulator underneath. He knows how to warm up to people, how to read them. Weisz plays Marlee with just the right balance of craftiness and humanity. What she’s threatening to do is illegal and certainly very sleazy, yet you somehow know that she’s not a bad person. When her motivation for participating in the scheme is revealed near the end, you understand fully why the actress didn’t play Marlee as a bad guy.
As for Gene Hackman, well, here’s another first-rate performance from one of the most consistently excellent actors working today. He gives Rankin Fitch a perennial – and fundamental – pissed off quality. The guy is wound too tight. He never smiles, he barks out orders, he yells and screams and throws things when he doesn’t get his way. Without going over the top, Hackman makes the character someone to be afraid of. You get the sense that Fitch would rip your head off over the slightest little thing. It’s a great character well-played by a great actor.
As one who has read most of John Grisham’s novels, I know one thing for sure: they are lots of fun to read, but they are not masterpieces. The same is true of Runaway Jury: it is a very entertaining film to watch, but it’s not a masterpiece of cinema. It’s a potboiler, an epic piece of melodrama that sucks you in but doesn’t necessarily leave you with any great insight into our legal system. It raises compelling issues about gun violence – and who is liable for the gun-related murders that take place every year – although it doesn’t reach any earth-shattering conclusion about them.
That, however, is really not a criticism in any genuine sense. Grisham stories are meant for enjoyment, not for profundity. The same goes for movies based on his books. Runaway Jury is made with great professionalism and competence. It is the kind of film that pulls you in for two hours, spinning an irresistibly juicy yarn. Best of all, it appears to have a real pulse, which some of the Grisham adaptations were sorely lacking. Of the movies made from his books, Runaway Jury is easily one of the most successful.
( out of four)
Runaway Jury is rated PG-13 for violence, language and thematic elements. The running time is 2 hours and 7 minutes.
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