Runaway Jury

October, 2003, Mystery

Directed by:Gary Fleder

Starring:John Cusack, Gene Hackman, Dustin Hoffman, Rachel Weisz, Bruce Davison, Bruce McGill, Jeremy Piven, and Nick Searcy

…weighing down genre characters with real psychologies is risky.

Larissa MacFarquhar, from an article on Tarantino in the The New Yorker

Not only risky, but counter-productive; an otherwise brilliant Mystic River drifts off course only when director Clint Eastwood tries to delve too deeply into the motivations of his cast. Audiences love genre pictures precisely because we can project our own rationale on the characters, rather than having that done for us; North by Northwest, The Maltese Falcon and Red River didn't become classics because we discovered what made the characters played by Grant, Bogart & Wayne tick, but because they were able to make us identify with them. From westerns to film noir to thrillers, the genre focus should be on what is done and how; "why" is best left to those of us in the bleacher seats.

Director Gary Felder has previously taken Michael Douglas (Don't Say A Word) and Morgan Freeman (Kiss The Girls) through the thriller category with mixed results--but he finds his stride here in this adaptation of John Grisham's novel about the manipulation of a jury. While the results don't deserve anything close to a "must see" recommendation, Runaway uses its talented cast and labyrinth-like plot to crisp effect, producing an effective if unimportant way to spend a couple of hours in the dark.

The film's opening contains it's best moments, documenting a brutal office massacre, (without overdoing the violence) which subsequently forms the basis of a civil trial against the gun manufacturer who's accused of negligently allowing it's products to fall into the hands of those who'll use them for criminal purposes. The plaintiff is the widow of one of the victims; her lawyer, (Dustin Hoffman) thinks he's got an airtight case. But the arms company hires a trial consultant, (Gene Hackman) to win an acquittal, whatever the cost. Since Hackman prides himself on positioning his clients with the best possible jury selection, the action revolves around the strategies involved in choosing the dozen people who are expected to see justice done and how they subsequently go about their deliberations. Yet one of them seems to have a distinctly hidden agenda; an electronics store employee, (John Cusack) with more on his mind than finding a way to irritate the judge who insists on placing Cusack exactly where he professes he doesn't want to be….  

Once seated, the jury begins to get worked by Hackman and his sleazy assistants from without, and by Cusack from within; he tells both sides he can deliver a verdict to the highest bidder, and then proceeds to line up his votes like a precinct captain on election day. Despite plot machinations that spiral out of the realm of the rational, Felder keeps the action moving briskly enough to keep his parrying trio well ahead of the audience's expectations--until a climax that resolves the storyline with such preposterous explanations it turns the movie into a legal shaggy dog story.

Hoffman's surprisingly miscast as the crusading attorney, (have the heart and soul of a member of the plaintiff's bar ever been so pure?) but Hackman's cynical, supercilious portrayal of corporate manipulation should be patent-protected; nobody embodies venality in a suit and tie any better. When the camera's on his goateed face, eyes alight with malign intent and lips curled into a perfect snarl, nothing else matters--seeing him get his comeuppance carries the audience as nothing else here can.

The supporting cast works professionally, (if unexceptionally) and the New Orleans settings are effectively captured as well, but this one is all about who can outmaneuver whom, and the trifecta of Hoffman, Cusack and Hackman are more than equal to the task presented by this contrived script. 

The verdict? Park your expectations for high art at the door and you'll enjoy this one--or better yet, invest part of a rainy evening a few months from now when it comes out on DVD. 

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