Runaway Jury Review
There seems to be the perception in Hollywood that the novels of John Grisham make great screen material. That this isn’t necessarily the case can be demonstrated by the number of, at best, mediocre adaptations of his books which have been churned out in the past ten tears. Occasionally, we get something well crafted like Sydney Pollack’s The Firm or Joel Schumacher’s surprisingly engaging The Client. But the list of shame is hard to ignore; The Pelican Brief, A Time To Kill, The Chamber, The Rainmaker, The Gingerbread Man. That the latter was an original story rather than an adaptation doesn’t much help, since it displayed all the flaws of the adaptations without the saving grace of careful plotting. Runaway Jury doesn’t entirely buck the trend but it’s not all that bad either, thanks to a good cast working their backs off and one of Grisham’s most compelling plots.
Like most of Grisham’s stories, this is based around a trial without being your standard courtroom drama. A gun manufacturing company is put on trial charged with liability for the death of a man who was killed by one of their weapons. Millions of dollars are at risk, so the firearms company hire jury consultant Rankin Fitch (Hackman) to ensure a verdict of not guilty. Fitch manipulates juries both in the selection process and during the trial but on this occasion he finds himself up against an unusual challenge. Jury member Nick Easter (Cusack) begins his own manipulations for reasons which only gradually become clear and as the stakes become increasingly high, Nick and his mysterious girlfriend Marlee (Weisz) find their lives in danger.
This is a rather unlikely plot, the most obvious lacunae being how Nick could be so certain of being called up for this trial rather than any other. It’s also slightly peculiar that one group of twelve people could have quite so many dark secrets for Fitch to find out as this one does. A slightly larger problem lies in the characters of Nick and Marlee. There is quite a neat twist waiting for viewers at the end, centred around their attempts to offer the right verdict to whichever side is willing to stump up the most cash. What seems to be a heartless bit of cavalier capitalism turns out to be more complicated and could seem like a bit of a cheat, but that’s not the main problem with it. The problem is, as my esteemed cinema reviewing colleague Kevin O’Reilly pointed out, that their methods are just as dubious as those of Fitch. If the film is trying to say that jury tampering is a bad thing - one of several fingers pointed during the two hour running time – then why does it suggest that it’s all right as long as you’re on a private crusade and not doing it as a professional operation ?
As this is a very typical liberal Hollywood melodrama, the finger-pointing is not surprising. It’s in the tradition of Twelve Angry Men - a generally excellent film but one which demonised Lee J. Cobb and Ed Begley in a way which now looks distinctly McCarthyite in style if not in politics – and anything directed by Stanley Kramer. As a Leftist myself, I find this style rather tedious, with anything not politically acceptable deemed a bad thing. The results are invariably trite. Fitch and the firearms big-shots are portrayed in the way that Jews used to be in anti-Semitic literature or Afro-Americans are in Birth of a Nation. Heartless, cold-blooded, wicked, more concerned about money than principles, inhumanly unsympathetic – the stereotyping is laughable. In the case of Fitch, this is redeemed through Gene Hackman’s splendid performance, about which more later, but the representatives of the gun company are invariably evil down to their bones. The same appears to go for the attorney for the defence, played by a struggling Bruce Davison, who isn’t allowed to be anything but some kind of idiotic puppet. Miss Monroe (Margeurite Moreau), the psychological adviser to Fitch, is forced to wear unflattering clothes and made to look like a cold bitch. It’s got all the subtle political insight of your average BNP leaflet. Yet, what does all this add up to ? The profound insight that, wait for it, guns are a bad thing. If you agree with this, the film will play to all your prejudices. If you don't, then nothing here will change your mind.
But what the film lacks in shading, it gains in performances. Gene Hackman is quite magnificent in the role of Fitch. It’s sometimes said that Hackman gives the same performance in every film he makes, a charge which is grossly unfair. One could say the same of Spencer Tracy, Humphrey Bogart, Fred Astaire, John Wayne, Gregory Peck, William Holden, Sidney Poitier, Lee Marvin, Clint Eastwood, Burt Lancaster, James Cagney, Cary Grant, Edward G. Robinson, Henry Fonda and James Stewart and be just as wrong for the same reason. All these actors, like Hackman, have incredibly strong screen personas developed over many years in films, and they bring these to each role they play, but it’s the details and shadings they put into each performance which makes them distinctive. To complain that they are always the same is to show a fundamental misunderstanding of film acting. There’s nothing remotely similar – give or take the trademark Hackman chuckle – about his performances in The Royal Tenenbaums and Runway Jury or, come to that, in Behind Enemy Lines and Heartbreakers. He’s one of the most versatile and interesting American actors in film history and you just have to look at the range of his roles to see what a treasure he is – Buck Barrow, Popeye Doyle, Harry Caul, Harry Moseby, Lex Luthor, Little Bill, Senator Keeley, Royal Tenebaum, to name but a few. He can do the slightly dull, workmanlike acting that pays the rent (something which all the other actors I’ve mentioned did as well) but I’ve never seen him give what I would call a bad performance. As Rankin Fitch, he dominates the screen with such effortless charisma that it’s a shame when the schematic plot demands that he gets his comeuppance. Every sentence is carefully weighed, every gesture subtly different to suit the situation. It’s a great performance in a film which doesn’t deserve it.
In one scene, Hackman goes head-to-head with Dustin Hoffman who plays Wendell Rohr, the counsel for the defence. The actors, old friends, have never worked together on screen before and their meeting is a riveting moment. It’s also a good scene where some interesting ethical points are raised. Hoffman is on good form, hamming enjoyably as the kind of good hearted Southern lawyer epitomised by Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird. It has to be said that he comes off worst in the scene, largely because Hackman gets the better lines, but Hoffman has always been a highly watchable actor and he’s good to have around. His accent, incidentally, sounded to me like Dorothy Michaels from his finest hour, Tootsie, but I assume this wasn’t intentional.
These two supporting parts, along with Bruce McGill’s bullish Judge, are a hell of a lot more fun than the leading roles, and it’s to John Cusack’s credit that he manages to make Nick Easter seem like a halfway credible character. Cusack is a screen talent on a par with Hackman and Hoffman and you only have to look at High Fidelity or Say Anything to see how he can hold even the slightest movie together. His likeable and funny presence makes the film bounce along, particularly during the scenes with the jury together, and he can deliver a funny line with immaculate timing. His credibility doesn’t survive the last reel revelations but the movie is virtually over by the time these creak into action. Rachel Weisz is more problematic. She’s not the most expressive of actresses and when she’s on screen you find yourself looking at the furniture. She’s meant to be some kind of powerhouse negotiator but put her in a scene with Hoffman or Hackman and she might as well have stayed at home.
Gary Fleder’s direction is competent rather than inspired, with the single exception of an excellent montage dealing with the intricacies of jury selection. This scene is good enough to make you hope that he might bring us something really gripping and stylish but he soon settles down into the kind of good natured plodding that he employed in Don’t Say A Word and Kiss The Girls. His first film, the deliciously quirky Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead suggested a really individual talent but his subsequent work has been a disappointment. But he keeps the scenes moving and he works well with the actors, producing something which is overlong but never as boring as you might fear. But the script doesn’t help him much. It’s verbose and inconsistently characterised, providing opportunities for good actors like Cliff Curtis and Luis Guzman which are never taken advantage of. It’s also entirely predictable from the first moments, when the manipulative opening scene telegraphs which side of the fence the film is sitting on. Ultimately, Runaway Jury is acceptable rainy-afternoon entertainment which isn’t likely to strain too many brain cells, as long as you accept that the ending – and the attendant manipulation - was inevitable the moment the film went into production.
Runaway Jury was an underachiever when it opened in America during last Autumn but it seems to have done quite well internationally. Fox’s DVD has come along sooner than expected and it’s a very good package indeed.
The film is presented in the original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 and has been anamorphically enhanced. This is an excellent transfer, as you’d expect for such a recent film. No problems with artefacting or edge enhancement, a suitably filmic appearance but not too grainy and some spectacular colours. The only real disappointment is that the blacks seemed a little bit washed out in places. I also thought that there was an occasional lack of fine detail. But overall, this is more than acceptable.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is also very good indeed. The atmosphere of the locations is well defined with immersive but not too showy surround effects and the dialogue comes across superbly. This isn’t the kind of track which offers the opportunity to show off your system but when the surround moments kick in – traffic, gunshots, flames – they are very effective.
There are plenty of extra features on the disc but only a few are of any consequence. First up is a full-length audio commentary from director Gary Fleder. This is pretty good with a lot of insightful comments about the structuring of the film and the characterisation. Fleder talks fluently throughout the running time of the film and offers quite a lot of food for thought. He’s generous about his actors and technical crew while toning down the usual self-congratulation we tend to get in these things.
The best extras concern Gene Hackman and Dustin Hoffman, the highlight being an all too brief 9 minute conversation about their 40 year friendship. This is as funny and anecdotal as you’d expect but it suddenly bursts into life towards the end when Hackman talks about his inspiration for the character of Harry Caul in The Conversation. The two actors also feature in a 13 minute featurette about the already famous washroom sequence. This has some excellent behind the scenes footage and some frank comments from the actors about how they approached the scene. The two actors also pop up in commentaries for a selected scene each; the washroom scene for Hoffman and the climactic barroom scene for Hackman. These are quite interesting if you're curious about how actors approach their work but don't provide anything surprising.
Otherwise, the extras are the expected collection of standard features. We get two highly dispensable deleted scenes with optional commentary, a truly dire 12 minute EPK feature on the making of the film and four five minute featurettes on the acting, the cinematography, the production design and the editing. These featurettes are pretty good for anyone unfamiliar with the technical aspects of filmmaking but if you’re already aware of what the various participants do then you won’t learn anything new.
Finally, the disc contains two trailers, one for this film and another for the upcoming Denzel Washington opus Man On Fire.
English and Spanish subtitles are provided for the film but not for the extra features. There are some rather tedious animated menus and the film has been divided into 28 chapters.
Runaway Jury isn’t a great film by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s certainly one of the more effective adaptations of John Grisham’s work. Indeed, compared to a travesty like The Chamber - in which the ubiquitous Gene Hackman was the only saving grace – it looks like some kind of masterpiece. Whatever you think of the primary-school politics and the schematic plot, it should provide a satisfying evening’s entertainment. The DVD is pretty good on the whole, despite an abundance of bland featurettes, and presents the film well.