"Trials are too important to be left up to juries."
I read a lot of light and fluffy books. When I pick up a novel, nine times out of ten I want something easy to read that will simply entertain me. Every now and then I'll pick up a book that isn't on the New York Times Bestseller list, but most times you'll find me reading Tom Clancy, Stephen King, John Sandford, and John Grisham. I read authors in chronological release, which is very important in understanding the author and his characters.
Most of us are quite familiar with Grisham because so many of his books have been turned into movies: A Time to Kill, The Firm, The Pelican Brief, The Client, The Rainmaker, and now we have Runaway Jury. I've never cared for the movie interpretations of his books, but I was looking forward to this one. Why? Well, the order of the movies listed is also the order of the books as they were released. "A Time to Kill" was a great start for the author, a solid book, but it was also a bit heavy. "The Firm" was an excellent follow-up that was very good until you got to a very bad ending—fortunately the movie's ending was better, but not by much. "The Pelican Brief" just never worked for me—it felt a bit disjointed. I think Grisham didn't quite have a good tale to work with, and it shows. "The Client" was average but not exceptionally engaging because of the kid. But then we got to "The Rainmaker," which seemed to me a turning point in Grisham's career. At this point, Grisham changed writing tactics and just went for a good yarn. You could read the book and see the inevitable movie. And then Grisham completely clicked with me with "Runaway Jury." I vividly recall reading the book and just loving it. It's a great story, gripping, taut, and a whole lot of fun. I knew that unless Grisham really screwed up, "Runaway Jury" made me a reader for life.
With that remembrance of a fast-paced, exciting book, I couldn't wait to see it on the big screen.
Facts of the Case
Monday morning and 11 people are dead, gunned down by a disgruntled coworker who was fired last Friday. Yesterday, Jacob Wood (Dylan McDermott, Wonderland, The Practice) was celebrating his little boy's birthday. Today, his wife Celeste mourns her family's loss.
Two years later the trial against the gun makers is finally set to go to trial in New Orleans. Presenting the case for Mrs. Wood is Wendell Rohr (Dustin Hoffman, Rain Man, Confidence), an honest lawyer looking to do what is right. But his job is going to be very difficult because the gun makers have never lost a case, due in large part to Rankin Fitch (Gene Hackman, Heist, The Replacements, Crimson Tide), an expert jury consultant. Fitch will use every trick in the book to seat a jury that will be sympathetic to his clients. Be it legal or illegal, Fitch will have potential jurors investigated, wiretapped, followed, and/or coerced to make sure they vote in his favor.
Rohr doesn't believe in jury consultants, but he realizes he's up against the most formidable challenge of his life. He hopes that he can use common sense and integrity to pick a jury that will be favorable to his client. But when jury consultant Lawrence Green (Jeremy Piven, Old School, Black Hawk Down) shows up, Rohr acknowledges he'll need some help of his own and brings Green in on his side.
But what neither man realizes is that there is a third party at work on the jury, Nick Easter (John Cusack, Identity, Pushing Tin) and his mysterious friend Marlee (Rachel Weisz, Confidence, Enemy at the Gates). Though Nick tells his friends he doesn't want to be on the jury, the truth is that he very much wants to be on the jury. He and Marlee plan to manipulate the other 11 members to come to the verdict that they decide. So, no matter what case Rohr presents, no matter what Fitch does to sway the jury members from the outside, Nick's on the inside as juror number nine and he will make the final call.
Marlee presents an offer to both Rohr and Fitch: this jury can be bought for $10 million. If Fitch pays, the verdict is not guilty. If Rohr pays, the verdict is guilty. If both pay, the verdict is guilty.
The gun makers cannot lose even one case because that will open a floodgate of lawsuits. But Rohr is an honest man and doesn't believe he'll need to stoop to such an illegal measure. As Nick and Marlee prove they have control over the jury and as the case doesn't progress to Rohr's expectations, will either party give in to Nick and Marlee's demands?
Runaway Jury was not a runaway hit in theaters. Even though it presented the first appearance of Hoffman and Hackman together in the same film—which is so exhaustively reiterated on the disc that the history of the moment is tarnished and diminished—Runaway Jury is but another average legal potboiler. The movie once again failed to capture the energy of the book. We all know that's a given rule, but it's made all the more complicated when your book is light and fluffy to begin with. Grisham's tale, while involving and fun to read, doesn't translate well to the screen. How much fun is it to observe a civil trial? It's not. That's why this book/movie isn't about the trial but about the jury. But because of that, you'd think it would be more captivating to see someone manipulate the people and the system.
Yes and no.
First, it's exceptionally disheartening to see yet another way in which our overburdened legal system is failing to do its job. True, it's really not the system this time but those outside of it who know how to manipulate it to their ends. It's just sad to see how justice isn't always done—justice can be bought, in some measure. Yet, on the flipside, it is fascinating to get a look at the jury selection/manipulation process. The bonus features attest that what is presented is strongly rooted in reality, so it is intriguing…but still sad and amazing to see the lengths that some will go to to obscure justice.
The root problem with the movie is taking the light and fluffy Grisham novel and expanding it to a serious movie. In this case, it doesn't quite work because our extremely talented actors are way off their best—in particular, John Cusack and Dustin Hoffman. I've never been a groupie of the quirky Mr. Cusack, but after seeing his work in Identity, one of my personal favorites of 2003, I realized how good he's been over the years. He's always been able to embody and add a certain charm to his characters. John is an actor who seems remarkably at ease on the screen. But in Runaway Jury, there's a little something missing in his performance. I wasn't a believer in his character. I didn't buy how well he was able to work events and manipulate people. I didn't believe that Nick Easter could do the things he did.
More surprising for me was the uninspired performance from long-time great Dustin Hoffman. The last movie I saw with him in it was Confidence. In that, he was impassioned and inspired. He took hold of his bad guy character and stole each scene he was in. But in Runaway Jury, portraying the honest lawyer, he did mediocre work. There was a distinct lack of passion and zeal. He wasn't on his A-game for this movie, and I found myself wishing for a little more Winston King than Wendell Rohr.
Fortunately, the movie is saved by a stellar performance from Gene Hackman. Now a Grisham regular—he's also been in The Firm and The Chamber—he looks to have relished playing the man in complete control. Fitch is a man who defines the game. He may let you think you have a chance, but you are playing on his turf by his rules, and he will win. Rankin Fitch is confident, smart, and cunning, and with Hackman in this role, you believe Fitch is very capable of manipulating this or any other jury out there. Hackman is the core of the movie, and it's his scenes that are the most memorable and most worth watching.
This DVD from our friends at 20th Century Fox is a respectable release, with good transfers and a nice assortment of extras. The anamorphic transfer is nearly flawless as it richly presents the film's dark color palette. You get excellent sharpness and details (allowing you to easily notice the rain discontinuities) throughout, with the only blemish being some nasty shimmer in one of the final scenes, thanks to Rohr's oddly checkered suit pattern. The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix isn't anything special, but you do get the usual clean dialogue and pleasant use of the surrounds and subwoofer. You won't find any qualms with the transfers if you purchase this disc.
On the bonus feature front, there is plenty to choose from:
The Rebuttal Witnesses
It's another Grisham winner! Expertly translated from book to the big screen, Runaway Jury will amaze you with its magnificent story and its stunning ensemble of actors. There's never a dull moment in this film, as you're glued to the edge of your seat wondering what will happen next. Filled with unexpected twists and turns, you'll be amazed by its wicked ending.
Speaking of the much ballyhooed "surprise ending," don't let all the quotes on the packaging fool you into thinking the ending is really all that big of a surprise. As an average movie fan, you'll see it coming a mile away; it isn't that surprising or unexpected. In fact, you'd be more surprised if there were a different ending.
Lastly, I realize I have yet to mention the differences between Grisham's book and the film. Though there are quite a few, there are two that should be mentioned, in case you are so motivated to later pick up the book. These two major changes are (1) that the book used the tobacco industry instead of the gun industry, and (2) that Rohr and Fitch never have their scene together. Both changes are perfectly understandable (since courts have obviously ruled against big tobacco in the interim and who would want to waste an opportunity to have a scene between Hoffman and Hackman?) and do not diminish the enjoyment of either version.
Though I've been a bit on the downside for this film, it isn't a bad film. It's an intriguing look at another facet of our legal system, and though our actors aren't all in their finest forms, there's still plenty to make the time pass quickly. You'll enjoy the story, the manipulations, and mostly Hackman's sizzling performance. I definitely recommend it for rental, but I'll let you decide if you want to buy it. If you do, you'll be happy with the transfers and the supplemental materials.
I hereby find Runaway Jury not guilty on the charges of witness tampering, jury manipulation, and contempt of court.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary by Director Gary Fleder
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