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Runaway Jury   C-

20th Century Fox

Year Released: 2003
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Gary Fleder
Writers: Brian Koppelman, David Levien, Matthew Chapman (based on the novel by John Grisham)
Cast: John Cusack, Gene Hackman, Dustin Hoffman, Rachel Weisz, Bruce Davison, Bruce McGill, Jeremy Piven, Nick Searcy.

Review by Rob Vaux

The heart of Hollywood's problem beats strong and true in Runaway Jury. Where else does one find good craftsmanship so blatantly mistaken for storytelling, strong performers so brazenly passed off as real characters, or turgid potboiling so loudly trumpeted as social commentary? It does what big studios do so well, assembling decent directing, fine actors and a reasonably intriguing premise to create a handsome-looking phantom. It's less a movie than a facsimile of one, risking nothing and achieving a little less.

John Grisham novels make a good fit for such product, combining soap-opera melodrama with fascinating legal minutia to create tales as disposable as a grocery bag. They also toy with nasty cynicism, revealing how easily our concepts of judicial fairness can be destroyed. Runaway Jury starts with a courtroom fundament -- the selection of those 12 people, ostensibly fair and impartial -- and ruthlessly manipulates it with factors that have nothing to do with the case. Its centerpiece is a high-profile lawsuit making national headlines. The defense hires oily counsel Rankin Fitch (Gene Hackman) to pack the box with sympathetic jurists; operating a small army from the ubiquitous empty warehouse, he has the candidates tailed, photographed, and researched to within an inch of their lives. When the selection process starts, he knows exactly who will be in his corner and who will be liabilities. As if that weren't Orwellian enough, Runaway Jury adds a second twist: a slick con man (John Cusack) who finagles his way onto the jury with the intent of selling the verdict to the highest bidder. His people skills are enough to bring anyone around to his way of thinking, and his tough-gal partner (Rachel Weisz) makes an icy middleman to negotiate a big payoff. Such wild cards are exactly the problem Fitch relishes in eliminating.

It's all preposterous, of course, but it has a pretext of plausibility -- helped by Cusack's performance -- which sets us up for some deliciously dark fun. All too soon, however, the other shoe drops. The first sign of unease comes with the social issue to which this premise is married. It involves gun control (tobacco in the book), and whether firearms companies are liable for the harm their products inflict. The plaintiff -- cinema's Innocent Victim shorthand of a teary-eyed single mom -- wants damages after her husband is killed in an office shooting, and her crusading lawyer (Dustin Hoffman) will not rest until justice is served. Tying such a loaded topic to such an obvious soap opera can only damage it, reducing the film's higher calling to the same level as its melodrama. Runaway Jury devotes significant energy to shots of evil gun executives crawling around in jet-black limousines, self-righteous monologues from Hoffman in pure To Kill a Mockingbird tradition, and a hundred other devices designed to pound the gun control message straight down our gullet. So shrill does it become, so utterly black-and-white in its presentation, that the entire affair is reduced to a joke before the third reel begins. Add to that a loopy series of plot developments -- break-ins, foot chases, courtroom theatrics, and sinister hitmen arriving with escalating rapidity -- and we soon find ourselves drawn away from the Machiavellian gamesmanship into the realm of farce.

To excuse such shenanigans, Runaway Jury responds with an admittedly solid production: well-assembled the same way a refrigerator or a stereo would be. It's never boring, it looks pretty, and it more or less does what you'd expect it to. Director Gary Fleder has a nice eye for the film's New Orleans setting, and generates reasonable suspense through some clever bits of time dilation. He also governs the actors quite deftly, letting them do what they do best without losing control of their larger function in the drama. Hoffman is saddled with the most embarrassing material, but he also has a terrific coffee-shop confrontation with Weisz, and the showpiece scene between he and Hackman is everything we could hope for.

The problem is that none of that changes the film's willingness to sideline any hint of creativity, or play it timid at its core while going so hysterically wild at the fringes. The marquee headliners and production design try to convince us otherwise, but we've been sold this routine far too many times for it to make an impact. Runaway Jury is finally an empty pursuit, no different or more memorable than any of a hundred other films this year. Its aspirations to something higher only compound its final, terminal mediocrity.

Review published 10.13.2003.

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