Runaway Jury (review)

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Lawyers, Guns, and Money

The one time I tried to read a John Grisham book, I had to throw it aside with great force, like Dorothy Parker would have done. Man, is the guy a lousy prose stylist, or what? But his books make great movies for the same reason they sell so well: he tells highly entertaining stories. Completely preposterous stories, true, but highly entertaining ones nevertheless. What makes the film versions endurable is that we don’t have to suffer through stuff like this: “Traci’s red face was replaced by a shot of her jogging along a sidewalk, splendidly awash in pink and black spandex and spotless Reebox with a white sun visor sitting just above the latest in reflective sport sunglasses, her long hair in a cute, perfect ponytail.”

Instead, we get to spend two hours with a cast that you can’t help but love, some of them playing characters you’ll love to hate and some of them playing characters you’re not sure if you want to hate until the end. And director Gary Fleder (Don’t Say a Word) whips the script, by a committee of screenwriters, into a crackerjack example of the best kind of studio filmmaking: slick, polished, precision-crafted fun that’s edge-of-your-seat suspenseful and smart enough to know its limitations. The story it tells is utterly absurd, of course, but that’s besides the point: Runaway Jury is designed to go down well with your popcorn and let you walk away pretending you feel good about truth, justice, and the American way.

It starts out scary, though, scary and creepy and enough to put you off your civic duty forever, if the pittance of $16 a day plus lunch weren’t enough to do so. Gene Hackman (Behind Enemy Lines, The Royal Tenenbaums), in a too-sharp suit and a smarmy grin, oozes onscreen as a jury consultant who, with a team that might well be assembled from his Enemy of the State and The Conversation cohorts, spies on potential jurors with a glee only John Ashcroft could love and with an arsenal of toys James Bond would kill for, miniature cameras and tiny transmitters and banks of supercool computers. Rankin Fitch — you can tell he’s evil just by his name — has been hired by the defendent in a civil case to help them manufacture a jury that will be sympathetic to the defendent’s cause. And if that requires searching all sorts of supposedly private databases for the secrets that will allow Fitch to blackmailing jurors, so be it. How are Fitch and Co. able to access all this stuff? There’s no time to think about that — we’re too busy bouncing around the frenetic activity of Fitch’s well-oiled team. Anyway: Scary! Booga-booga-booga! Right to privacy! Call the ACLU!

Oh, and the defendant? Big Gun. You always suspected there was a cabal of gun manufacturers in cahoots to put semiautomatics into the hands of toddlers and keep the courts off their backs about it, right? Here they are, schmoozing Fitch and hiring defense attorneys like poor Bruce Davison (X2: X-Men United, High Crimes), playing the immoral slimy guy once more. Here they are, sipping the oak-aged blood of innocent bystanders and shooting skeet with the skulls of babies.

Of course, if government databases really were as insecure as Windows and Big Gun really was buying juries, the best way to make the very thought of such things seem ludicrous would be with a film like Runaway Jury, which plays up such concepts to the point of ridiculousness. Cuz I think our governmental/corporate overlords could get away with just about anything these days, and the first peep of exposure or resistance would be met with dismissals of poppycock “conspiracy theories,” with all blame placed on the Internet. But I digress.

There are a few guys on the side of good: Dustin Hoffman (Confidence, Moonlight Mile) as Wendell Rohr, attorney for the claimant, the wife of a man shot to death in an office-rage incident. Rohr’s idea of manipulation is deliberately spilling mustard on his tie at lunchtime in a bid to make the jurors think he’s just an ordinary schmoe, like them. And there’s Rohr’s jury consultant, Lawrence Green (Jeremy Piven: Old School, Rush Hour 2), who recommends jurors like an infant choosing amongst pretty lollipops compared to Fitch’s depraved scheming. While Green salivates at the thought of being permitted by Rohr to work for a mere 30 percent of his typical fee, Fitch is extorting Big Gun for millions.

We’re doomed, is the only conclusion any right-thinking American can come to.

But wait: Here’s our boy, John Cusack (Identity, Max). John’s gotta be a good guy, right? But no… his Nicholas Easter schemes his way onto the jury — the wife is suing the company that made the gun that killed her husband — and he’s up to something. He and his partner, Marlee (Rachel Weisz: About a Boy, The Mummy Returns), are playing both ends against the middle, Nick slicker than he looks and able to maneuver the jury from the inside while Marlee approaches Rohr and Fitch with an offer: the jury goes to the highest bidder. But our boy John… he can’t be a bad guy. He wouldn’t possibly throw the jury the way of Big Gun just for a fast buck. Would he?

Oh, the desperation is nigh unbearable for a while — it’s not too often that you can thank a film’s casting for generating half its suspense. But never fear: this is Grisham. Whether our boy John is its servant or not, justice will be served by the end. Cuz Grisham still believes in that kind of fantasy, and Hollywood knows that you can’t go wrong by playing to an America that still wants to believe in it, too.

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