Runaway Jury Review

Of the half dozen John Grisham books I've read, The Runaway Jury is the most enjoyable. Although the lawyer-turned-novelist is associated with commercial thrillers like The Firm and The Pelican Brief, what he does best is satirise the American legal system and the southern courts in which he used to work. His target in this tale was the corruption of jury trials by sinister consultants employed by wealthy corporations and agencies to influence the decision of the twelve people in the box. Written in the author's amusingly sardonic style, the novel followed a fictional trial in which America's tobacco companies were sued for damages by the relatives of cancer victims and it demonstrated how easily the jury became puppets in the hands of expert manipulators.

Aside from Hollywood's routine dropping of "The" from the title, the most obvious change from the novel is the industry on trial. After Grisham wrote the book, the tobacco companies finally did lose a compensation case, which made his fictional trial instantly outdated. The film adaptation has replaced one political hot potato with another - gun control. A woman widowed in a senseless shooting rampage is suing the gun company which made the murder weapon. Her attorney is Wendell Rohr (Dustin Hoffman), a passionate southern liberal who has been pursuing the arms industry for years and now believes he has a case he can win. Representing the manufacturer is corporate lawyer Durwood Cable (Bruce Davison) but Rohr's real opponent is shadowy jury expert Rankin Fitch (Gene Hackman, who's making his third Grisham film after The Firm and The Chamber). His job is to get the verdict his employers want by any means necessary, his employers being the major players of the gun industry, for whom a verdict for the plaintiff would be a disaster. Fitch works out of a mobile command centre that looks like NASA's Mission Control and his team includes surveillance people, computer experts, private investigators and hired thugs.

What gives Fitch his edge and makes him worth his exhorbitant fee is his innate understanding of people. He can sum up just about anyone in an instant and he uses this ability to the full during the jury selection process, dismissing any potential juror he recognises as unfriendly to his clients' cause. One man who slips under his radar is Nicholas Easter (John Cusack), the scruffy owner of a video games store. Nick doesn't seem to have any particular politics or prejudices and when he tries to wheedle his way out of doing his duty, Fitch has him accepted as a jury member. He knows a reluctant juror won't be inclined to be generous towards whoever brought the case. But is there more to Easter than meets the eye? Just as the trial gets under way, Wendell Rohr and Durwood Cable both receive the same letter from a mysterious young woman called Marlee (Rachel Weisz). This jury has been infiltrated by a very clever third party and its verdict is for sale to the highest bidder.

Despite a spirited first half and some fine performances, Runaway Jury is one of the weaker Grisham adaptations. Director Gary Fleder (Don't Say A Word) and four screenwriters have translated the novel's storyline quite faithfully yet they've failed to understand what made the book such a page-turner: Grisham's cynical humour and his fascinating insider's look at the legal process. Instead, the film takes a much more conventional approach, playing it as a courtroom caper movie with the good guys taking on the evil gun companies. The makers of A Time To Kill did something similar, turning Grisham's witty attack on the media circuses that surround murder trials into a straight drama about a good man on trial for his life. While that film was also a disappointment, it did at least work on the level intended since Samuel L Jackson and Matthew McConaughey made sympathetic heroes.

The big problem with Runaway Jury is that its only real hero is Dustin Hoffman's honest lawyer Wendell Rohr, who has a few good scenes but is confined to a supporting role. The two main protagonists are Nick and Marlee and they remain frustratingly ambiguous for most of the story. Only in a major twist at the end do their true motives become clear. As likeable as John Cusack is, he can't do much with a character he's unable to reveal and as Rachel Weisz has never been very sympathetic at the best of times, that leaves the film with two blanks as the leads. Ironically, the despicable Fitch is played with such colour and exhuberance by Gene Hackman that, like a Batman villain, he effortlessly steals the show. Only Dustin Hoffman can hold the screen against him. They have one scene together, the first they've ever shared, and it's easily the highlight of the film.

Another issue I had with the film was its attitude towards Nick and Marlee and their methods. It's hard to explain my feelings here in detail without spoiling the ending but I was troubled by the way the film condemned the underhanded tactics employed by its villain and excused the same behaviour by other characters. Surely however noble your intentions or however slimy your opponents, it's not okay to tamper with a jury. The film-makers must understand this on some level because they go to such lengths to make their anti-gun message work on your emotions. The gun companies are portrayed as being on about the same moral level as the Mafia and, in an unnecessary prologue, we even see the plaintiff's doomed husband practising a song for his child's birthday party just before he's shot down. That's manipulation worthy of Rankin Fitch.

Overall

5

out of 10

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