John Cusack, Dustin Hoffman, Gene Hackman, and Rachel Weisz in Runaway Jury (2003)


(director/producer: Gary Fleder; screenwriters: Rick Cleveland/Matthew Chapman/Brian Koppelman/David Levien/from the novel The Runaway Jury by John Grisham; cinematographer: Robert Elswit; editor: William Steinkamp; music: Christopher Young; cast: John Cusack (Nick Easter), Gene Hackman (Rankin Fitch), Dustin Hoffman (Wendall Rohr), Rachel Weisz (Marlee), Bruce Davison (Cable), Nora Dunn (Stella Hullic), Bruce McGill (Judge Harkin), Jeremy Piven (Lawrence Green), Nick Searcy (Doyle), Stanley Anderson (Jankle), Cliff Curtis (Frank Herrera), Nestor Serrano (Janovich), Joanna Going (Celeste Woods), Gerry Bamman (Herman Grimes), Dylan McDermott (Jacob Woods), Jennifer Beals (Vanessa Lembeck); Runtime: 127; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producers: Arnon Milchan/Christopher Mankiewicz; 20th Century Fox; 2003)

“It is watchable despite being devoid of meaning.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Another disposable thriller lawyer flick that is based on a John Grisham novel. Gary Fleder slickly directs this studio pic and his team of screenwriters Rick Cleveland, Matthew Chapman, Brian Koppelman, and David Levien go too far out with this preposterous tale about jury tampering. But it has a fine showboating cast and shows openly which side it is on over the battle of gun control as it rails against the cabal of gun manufacturers. These might be reasons enough for some to overlook how silly it all is and with the way the story is rigged to favor the liberal side, as it is watchable despite being devoid of meaning.

It’s set in New Orleans and opens with a wonderful father to his young birthday son, Jacob Woods, getting gunned down in a random massacre in his office by a gunman using a semiautomatic weapon he purchased illegally on the street. His young widow Celeste hires a local old-fashioned, crusading, lawyer Wendall Rohr (Dustin Hoffman) to sue the gun manufacturer for millions for allowing its product to be used in an unlawful way. Since a loss in this civil lawsuit could cripple the gun industry as they have never lost such a suit before and this could set a precedent and open a floodgate of lawsuits, all the gun manufacturers ban together and hire an unscrupulous big-time jury consultant Rankin Fitch (Gene Hackman) to help their high-paid corporate lawyer Cable (Davison) pick a jury that will secure a verdict in their favor. Fitch has his army-like team do every dirty trick in the book to choose the jury. They work out of a high-tech secret command center that is equipped to monitor conversations they somehow bug in a way never explained and have the software to bring up in a jiffy any jury info on a score of computers. The way the lawyer team sees it, their only chance of winning is to get the right jury.

In comparison Rohr is content to play by the rules and rely on his instinctual lawyer skills. But a jury consultant, Lawrence Green (Piven), just shows up uninvited and convinces the reluctant lawyer that he believes in the cause and his services are needed. In contrast to their well-heeled opponents, Green has no high-tech equipment and works solo.

It builds as a formulaic David vs. Goliath battle.

The setup revolves around the tense jury selection, and Nick Easter (John Cusack) appears as a disgruntled juror who gets chosen despite wanting to get off. But Nick has his own agenda. He aims to use his likable personality skills to manipulate the jurors and get them to vote his way. The attractive Marlee (Rachel Weisz) is his girlfriend accomplice who plans to make $10 million by offering the jury to either side that pays.

The pointy bearded Fitch, looking like the devil, is a picture of an evil man without a conscience, who is willing to do anything he can get away with to win. That includes blackmailing and breaking into juror’s homes, and even to arson and exerting force against his opponents. Rohr is a determined man, who wrestles with his conscience about whether he has to win this case so badly that he’s willing to sacrifice his principles and buy the jury. The judge (McGill) is pictured as a callous man more interested in eating a good lunch than in serving justice. The morally ambiguous Nick and Marlee come with a story about a tragedy in their small-town Indiana schooldays, where as a result they have become committed to taking extreme measures in getting revenge on an injustice that took place in their town. All these opposing forces duke it out in front of the disinterested judge.

All the characters are thinly drawn, the twisty plot is uninvolving and hardly suspenseful, but the premise that the jury system is vulnerable to exploitation by the firearms company is something that deserves to be taken seriously and not be so brusquely dismissed by the filmmaker as just political humbug. If entertainment alone is what you are looking for, this film is highly entertaining. But it does a disservice by not adding a needed real voice to speak out against those who have so much contempt for the American judicial system that they would try to fix a jury, and by instead resolving all the wrongdoings in such a corny way that too neatly whitewashes everything that happened in the courtroom and makes it all seem pointless. Though all the courtroom melodramatics in this film might never happen as is, it is still possible that in a real courtroom a jury can so easily be swayed. But the film chucked that worthy premise to go for the unbelievable action packed story and in a heavy-handed manner it hammers home its one-sided political points by making the Hackman character and the gun manufacturer Jankle (Stanley Anderson) not redeemable one-dimensional creatures while stacking the deck and making the Dustin and Cusack characters out to be likable heroes. There wasn’t much to take away from this film, except to say how the star-studded cast carried out their assignments without missing a beat. Yet for all the big deal about having veteran stars Hackman and Hoffman work together for the first time and in roles where a flowery clash between them is expected, that only happens once and it wasn’t in the courtroom but in the gent’s room.


REVIEWED ON 10/21/2003 GRADE: C +