Runaway Jury Review

John Grisham is a member of an elite author's group, the one found in every airport around the world. Grisham, along with fellow writers such as Tom Clancy and James Patterson, write the perfect fodder for travellers on long flights – linear and adequately paced thrillers that will entertain for their duration and then disappear from memory soon after. Granted, they may be accomplished authors who can handle plot and development with ease, but at the rate they bang out novels on their keyboards, it is clear they follow formulaic plans in order to receive maximum commercial gain.

Grisham was a lawyer before deciding on a career change, opting for a world of words and sentence construction over fierce debates in civil courtrooms. But, following the cliché "write only what you know", every single one of his publications to date has revolved around his past profession in one form or another.

Runaway Jury is one of his many novels, published alongside his other works such as The Pelican Brief, The Chamber and The Firm, to name but a few. I had previously only encountered Grisham's world through The Chamber, which I read and thoroughly enjoyed, only to find my good memories sullied by the poor film adaptation (starring Gene Hackman and a young Chris O'Donnell). Having never read Runaway Jury, I approached this film adaptation with a neutral mindset and only the (intriguing) trailer to go by.

First things first: this film adaptation is very different from the source novel (or so I hear!). The storyline of the latter revolved around a lawsuit against a tobacco company, blamed for the deaths of its consumers, but by the time the rights were snapped up in Hollywood and the film entered a state of pre-production, Michael Mann's The Insider had tread identical ground. So, in true studio style, the executives and producers decided to change the whole plot – and narrative – of the film to a lawsuit against gun manufacturers. Yes, the very same organisations that have been slammed against a brick wall in recent years (most famously in Michael Moore's Oscar-winning Bowling for Columbine), criticised for the spread of gun crime and the deaths that their products inflict. Although I am a staunch believer that not every citizen should be allowed free reign when it comes to owning, and indeed using, a gun, guns do sadly play a vital role in society today – whether they are used in the military or for hunting purposes, and therefore should not be banned outright. The plot of the film is as follows:

After the brutal shooting of several people in their workplace, the widow of one victim files a lawsuit against the manufacturer who made the gun that killed her husband, regardless of the maniac who pulled the trigger. Esteemed lawyer Wendell Rohr (Dustin Hoffman), whose career has spanned 35 years of New Orleans legal wrangling, takes on her claim and is determined to win some compensation for the woman who is forced to bring up their child without a father. The gun manufacturer hires jury consultant Rankin Fitch (Gene Hackman), who has great expertise at choosing the precise group of twelve people to deliver the 'correct' verdict. Fitch soon starts to profile each possible candidate, recording any dark secrets that have been shrouded in their lives, as well as using surveillance techniques to establish their modus operandi. Soon a jury is chosen, which includes young Nick Easter (John Cusack), a video game enthusiast who is immediately portrayed as a slightly bitter character.

As other gun manufacturers all turn up the heat on Fitch and the defence team, as a guilty verdict would scupper sales and confidence in firearms, to his horror he realises that Easter has slipped under the radar and is now abusing his position in order to receive a large amount of money. Working with his mysterious girlfriend Marlee (Rachel Weisz), they claim that they can "push the verdict either way – for a price." Hell soon breaks loose as each side battles for supremacy, with danger constantly around the corner for Easter and Marlee as Fitch slowly closes in…

The film opens in style, with a clichéd setup of family bonding (a flashback to a young child's birthday party) turning into a matter of life and death when a disgruntled employee storms an office and starts shooting. This acts as the narrative crux of the film, the 'McGuffin' if you will, and the audience are soon made to ponder a conundrum: who is responsible for a gun-inflicted death, the shooter or the manufacturer? After a brief introduction to the main characters, the jury selection begins. Through various shady techniques, described above, Fitch and his team pick the people who they believe can abide by the Second Amendment and deliver a not guilty verdict – after all, each and every US citizen is entitled to gun possession, no?

This may be billed as a courtroom drama, and the Grisham origins certainly emphasise that, but in reality Runaway Jury is much more of a rollercoaster ride away from the mahogany courtroom, as the audience witness various exciting set-pieces around the beautiful city of New Orleans. From Easter's realisation that he is being followed – which leads to a chase out of his apartment and onto the road, to a vicious catfight between Marlee and an intruder, the film certainly does not skimp on visceral, pulse-pounding action.

The cast is the main highlight, a real showcase of talent and possessing actors who immediately sink their teeth into the material and refuse to let go until the two hour duration is up. John Cusack's Nick Easter is the main character, the central piece in this story that is gradually spiralling out of control, and Cusack delivers yet another engaging performance. However, the two stars of the show are Gene Hackman and Dustin Hoffman, flip sides of the coin that oppose each other and battle for the upper hand. The former is the 'evil' character, the jury consultant who will seek victory no matter how dubious the means are, whereas the latter is the typical 'good' character that leads a pleasant existence, revolving around helping others through legal means. It has been well publicised that this is the first time the two good friends have appeared on screen together, and since they are Hollywood heavyweights who have known each other since meeting at a playhouse in 1956, it does come as a bit of a surprise.

Rankin Fitch and Wendell Rohr are excellent creations, a courtroom equivalent of the classic battle of good vs. evil, and fortunately the writing is strong enough to provide them with character arcs and meaty dialogue. Fitch's quip that "Trials are too important to be decided by juries" is a perfect example of how democracy is being manipulated in this day and age, a system that should work on principle yet is open to abuse and many are taking full advantage of that fact. When Fitch and Rohr meet in a washroom, the first and only time Hackman and Hoffman get the chance to spar with each other, it is an explosive collision of two great minds in one confined space. Shot with panache and performed excellently, the entire film's morals and issues are thrown up onto the screen in one short sequence – do you follow what you believe in, or the money you can make? Does life matter, or is money more important? How far does someone go to achieve the result they want?

The ensemble cast – including renowned British actress Rachel Weisz – do a good job of creating a palpable and real atmosphere, going from Bruce McGill's hardened trial judge to the defence lawyer played by Bruce Davison (who played Senator Kelly in X-Men). Weisz is on good form as usual, mixing intrigue and passion to create the character of Nick Easter's girlfriend. Leland Orser, an actor who has appeared in many films in the background, also does well to create a 'spook' that works alongside Hackman's Fitch.

Directed by Gary Fleder, Runaway Jury is a very kinetic film, packed with energy and emotions bubbling under the surface. I was actually surprised by how well shot and photographed this film was, as I was only expecting a run-of-the-mill Hollywood novel adaptation; instead this is a much slicker film with visuals to back up a strong script and accomplished performances. New Orleans is made to look beautiful yet dangerous, a comment that Fleder made in an interview about the film, and the use of this particular locale (instead of the usual fare such as New York or Los Angeles) also benefits the film. Although Fleder may not have yet realised his full potential (from a strong debut with Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead, he has subsequently lost grip slightly and continued to make fairly average thrillers, such as Kiss the Girls and Don't Say a Word), this is an improvement on his track record and perhaps an indicator that he has matured sufficiently as a filmmaker.

Although the climax may be slightly predictable and the final revelation a tad implausible (I will leave the viewer to find out, otherwise it will be too much of a spoiler), it does at least warrant a repeat viewing, if only to see how the pieces fit when viewed with a different perspective.

The Disc
Available on R1 DVD since February, Fox have finally brought the disc to our shores. It is worth noting that the extra material present has bumped the certificate up from a 12 to a 15.

The menus are pretty dire (not a good start to the DVD!), as they contain horrible fonts and poor, fullscreen, animations in the background. They are, however, easy to navigate.

Considering the strength of the film's direction, I was hoping for a transfer to do it justice – and luckily we have been blessed with a superb one, showcasing Runaway Jury in style. Presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, the visuals are crisp and clear, with colours reproduced brilliantly: New Orleans looks glorious, as do the darker scenes in the film. No compression signs or other artefacts are visible.

Only one soundtrack is present: Dolby Digital 5.1, yet it does the job perfectly well. The front channels are used excellently to reproduce the dialogue clearly, although unfortunately the rear channels (and indeed the subwoofer) are hardly used at all. With a little more direction this could have been a very accomplished mix; instead it gets the job done, but lacks the real punch to make it excellent.

Beginning with an audio commentary by Gary Fleder, it is an insightful and informative way to watch the film a second – or third – time; he shares numerous anecdotes and pieces of technical information. As well as the feature-length commentary, scene-specific commentaries are provided on two scenes from the film – the washroom scene (explained above) and a climatic bar sequence. Dustin Hoffman is talking during the former, Gene Hackman during the latter, and again they are very informative and interesting to listen to.

Two deleted scenes are included, both with optional commentary from Fleder, and it's clear why they were chopped from the final cut – they're just not needed.

Seven featurettes form the main bulk of the package: two of which focus solely on Hackman and Hoffman's career and friendship, running at around 22 minutes when combined. Featuring some behind-the-scenes and interview footage, both are well worth watching and the two veteran actors obviously share a strong fraternal bond.

A standard, and therefore pointless, EPK featurette is included that lasts for just over ten minutes and is merely a glorified trailer. Four short featurettes – on the acting, cinematography, editing and production design – complete the package and continue to give a rounded view of how exactly the film was made.

I was pleasantly surprised by this accomplished and enjoyable film, and definitely recommend it as one to add to your collection – Fox are offering it for a low RRP, and the rest of the package is satisfactory. Granted, the extras could do with featuring a more comprehensive documentary, but on the whole this is a pleasing package.

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