If you’ve read John Grisham’s bestselling novel about jury tampering, you’ll be underwhelmed by the movie version. Runaway Jury has been Hollywood-ized (surprise, surprise) — but in director Gary Fleder’s attempt to dramatize the story for the big screen, he’s dulled it into an over-simplistic, sanitized, flattened, cardboard version of its former self.
Instead of the 1996 novel’s intriguing and complex issues of corporate tobacco research and marketing ethics, the film has been updated (?) into an all-too-predictable, preachy indictment of gun manufacturers. Instead of the fascinating personal stories of several jurors, the film delivers a series of cutaways, making virtually unintelligible the various insidious ways that juries can be compromised. Instead of interweaving moral questions with shades of gray, the film blatantly polarizes its characters into good guys and bad guys. Way too early in the film, all the characters go head-to head, losing the edge of mysterious elegance that would have occurred had they all waited a bit to reveal their agendas.
Based on the premise that “everybody’s got a dirty little secret,” a high-tech team of high-priced jury consultants investigates the life of each member of the jury in question, looking for humiliating secrets they can threaten to reveal. Fear of discovery makes the jurors do whatever they can to get dismissed, leaving the remaining pool of people susceptible to bribery.
Leading the team is Fitch Rankin (Gene Hackman, Heist), a brilliant manipulator whose contempt for jurors is legendary. (“Trials are too important to be decided by juries,” he pontificates with a supercilious smirk.) Rankin doesn’t care who his employer is — he goes to the highest bidder. In this case it’s Vicksburg Firearms, a major gun manufacturer with sloppy selling techniques.
Rankin’s opponent is Wendell Rohr (Dustin Hoffman, Confidence), an idealistic gun-control activist dedicated to forcing firearms manufacturers to take responsibility for crimes committed by the guns they sell. Rohr’s client is the plaintiff — a young woman widowed in a workplace shooting by a disgruntled employee wielding an assault rifle. If Rohr can get the jury to deliver a plea of guilty, the high-profile case will deal the gun-manufacturing industry a lethal financial blow.
Nicholas Easter (John Cusack, Identity), a seemingly innocuous young man with an amazing ability to get strangers to trust him, plays both sides against the other. Within hours he ingratiates himself with many of the jurors, becoming their unofficial leader. He proves to the opposing legal teams that he can (and will) swing the jury — depending on which team first coughs up the $10 million he’s demanding. Helping Easter is his girlfriend, Marlee (Rachel Weisz, Confidence), who seems as ruthless as he is.
The four lead actors give such mesmerizing performances that you almost forget how one-dimensional the story actually is. Like good attorneys strutting their stuff in the courtroom, the stars of this film make you think you’re seeing something substantial — and that you’re darn lucky to have the privilege of witnessing their brilliance. You don’t realize you’ve been hoodwinked till you walk out the door.
– reviewed by Marci Miller