Wendall Rohr (Dustin Hoffman), represents a widow who is suing the gun manufacturing consortium she holds responsible for her husband’s murder at the hands of a crazed colleague. Rohr’s legal opponent is only the front man for Rankin Fitch (Gene Hackman), a ruthless jury ‘consultant’ – or manipulator. Fitch gets to know more about the potential jurors than their own mother, so he can use anything and everything to influence the outcome of a trial for his clients – in this case, the gun maker. But Fitch and Rohr soon realize they’re not the only ones out to win the jury. One of the jurors, Nick Easter (John Cusack), seems to have his own plan for swaying the panel. And when the mysterious young Marlee (Rachel Weisz) reveals to both Rohr and Fitch that the jury’s actually for sale to either of them – at a big price – the men’s mettle, morality and careers are on the line. Along with a multi million dollar outcome for all concerned.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
With ex-lawyer John Grisham’s trademark setting within the legal system and his sense of the melodramatic in full flight, the story of Runaway Jury is ideal airplane or holiday hammock reading. The four writers credited for the screenplay adaptation, and director Gary Fleder have managed to turn the novel into as good a film as Sydney Pollack and his writers made a decade ago with Grisham’s The Firm. Hey, they’ve even got Gene Hackman back as a powerful baddie, although this time he’s up against a man his own age and experience: Dustin Hoffman. In The Firm it was a younger Tom Cruise, as many will remember.)
The two vet actors share a few scenes, but only one in which they exchange dialogue, and it’s a bewdy! Hard to think of a good reason why these two have never worked on a film before, because they are a dynamite duo, each pulling more out of the other with every verbal lashing and menacing stare. To Fleder and their own credit, there is no flaring nostril syndrome here, just great performances that come from the detailed characterisations created between writers, director and cast. This applies equally to the increasingly impressive Rachel Weisz and the always watchable John Cusack. More complexity in performance is required of the latter two than playing straight dramatic roles - as the film’s final revelations make clear in retrospect.
The film’s genre is thriller, and despite its many courtroom scenes, it is far from a courtroom drama; the most tantalising exchanges take place outside the courtroom, as jury rigging is practiced as an artform. Far fetched, we hope! The characters are driven by motives we either recognise early (like Fitch) or late (like Weisz and Cusak), or midway through (Hoffman) when it becomes evident that Rohr has a deeper reason for what he’s doing than just to win. In the end we come to understand all the motives and on the way there we get to align ourselves in the gun ownership debate that is at the centre the law suit. It strikes me as poignant that Hollywood devotes such star power and resources to a film that is editorially and emotionally in favour of limitations on personal gun ownership laws in the US. (Michael Moore’s political bedfellows?) The apparent self contradiction – with the many violent movies with handguns blasting a path of death and destruction – can only be explained by the profit motive. Doesn’t matter; may they prosper on changing the law.
Review by Louise Keller:
Elevated by its top-notch cast, Runaway Jury is a terrific yarn that will have you on edge from go to whoa. A thriller about morals and manipulation, John Grisham’s intriguing and original story canvasses a scenario that lies deep beyond the formalities and structure of the courtroom. Sharp, succinct editing accelerates the pace and there’s a touch of jazz to highlight the New Orleans setting.
While the fundamental issue of gun-control in itself is controversial, the lengths to which the money-grubbing lawyers will go to for control is terrifying. Nothing appears to be sacred or off-limits, when it comes to honing in for the kill. It’s not about justice – there’s even an ironic reference to the fact that justice is blind, and it is apt that the appointed jury foreman is himself blind. What is most exciting about Runaway Jury is the intersection of unexpected story strands, which collide in a surprising way. And we hope that Grisham’s tale is inspired from his imagination – the alternative is too frightening for words!
When Gene Hackman’s hard-nosed jury consultant Rankin Fitch enters the courtroom, he smirks like a lion primed for the kill, musing with apparent delight at the odours of ‘furniture polish, cheap cologne and body odour’, as if these are some of his favourite things. Fitch is the ultimate cynic, who believes in nothing except what money can buy, as he goes in search of everyone’s ‘dirty little secret’. And while he is well aware that ‘somebody always loses’, he is adamant that it will not be him. Dustin Hoffman’s honest lawyer Rohr, who lives by his conscience, is the perfect nemesis for Fitch, and without doubt, the scene where these two meet on screen in the men’s toilets is the best of the film. Hackman versus Hoffman is a formidable confrontation of exploitation versus ethics, and it matters little that Hackman’s 6 foot 2 towers above the diminutive Hoffman. John Cusack injects intrigue into his manipulative Nick Easter, and Rachel Weisz adds many layers of complexity to her mystery woman Marlee. Both their characters’ motives are kept under wraps until the very end of the film, which brings an additional element to the dramatic curve.
Propelled by its zippy script with a series of revelations, Runaway Jury is engrossing every step of the way. Enjoyable while it lasts, there’s a bit of everything in this stimulating court-room thriller that also offers much to think about, if you so choose.
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RUNAWAY JURY (M)
CAST: John Cusack, Gene Hackman, Dustin Hoffman, Rachel Weisz
PRODUCER: Gary Fleder, Christopher Mankiewicz, Arnon Milchan
DIRECTOR: Gary Fleder
SCRIPT: Brian Koppelman, David Levie, Rick Cleveland, Matthew Chapman (novel by John Grisham)
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Robert Elswit
EDITOR: William Steinkamp
MUSIC: Christopher Young
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Nelson Coates
RUNNING TIME: 120 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Fox
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: October 30, 2003
VIDEO DISTRIBUTOR: Fox Home Entertainment
VIDEO RELEASE: March 24, 2004
RIVERSIDE SCREEN PREMIERES
A program of premiere screenings of new movies prior to their commercial release
on 6 consecutive Tuesdays, starts February 17, 2015 at Riverside Theatre,
Curated & presented by Andrew L. Urban, discussion to
follow with special guests. Briefing notes provided.