Now Playing: Runaway Jury

Posted: Monday, October 20, 2003

Movies based on John Grisham novels are, in my opinion, strictly hit and miss. The Firm and A Time to Kill are pretty good movies, while The Client, The Chamber, and The Pelican Brief were nothing to write home about. With that in mind, I was a little wary about his latest, Runaway Jury. I'm thankful to say that, with the combined talents of a stellar cast including John Cusack, Gene Hackman and Rachel Weisz, Jury ranks among the best of Grisham's films.

Just about all of Grisham's books have either been adapted or are in the process of being adapted to films, which says a lot about the writer. It doesn't necessarily say anything good, however, just that his work tends to be somewhat cinematic and easy for an audience to follow. Perhaps it is exactly the perception that his work is little more than pulp for the masses that has lead Grisham away from his established lawyer-with-a-heart-of-gold routine, to smaller, more literary works like his latest, Bleachers. Not that he's complaining about his early success, however. That "pulp" turned a small-time southern lawyer into one of the best selling authors of all time. Much of that success can be attributed to just those stories. Simple though they are, they never shy away from hot-button issues and are always engaging.

Runaway Jury has just such a story, though it is actually a dramatic departure from the book. The novel centered around a young man's efforts to get himself on a jury trying a case against Big Tobacco. The movie, for reasons not explained, switches the antagonist to a gun manufacturing company, a scenario that surprisingly works better than the one in the book. The trial involves a wrongful death suit after a shooting spree in an office building leaves eleven people dead. The young man is Nick Easter, played with typical charisma and straightforward intensity by John Cusack. Cusack is not required much in this role, but plays it very well, managing to be both sympathetic and sinister at the same time. Nick, it seems, has more than simple civic duty in mind when it comes to serving on this jury. Together, he and his girlfriend Marlee, excellently played by up-and-comer Rachel Weisz, are going to swing this jury to the highest bidder. The trouble is, the gun manufacturers have already purchased a verdict in the hiring of Gene Hackman as ruthless jury profiler Rankin Fitch. Fitch is famous for making sure cases are not won or lost by the facts of a case, but by subtle, and not-so-subtle, manipulation of the jury. Finding and exploiting weaknesses is his expertise, and sparks fly when he discovers that he is in competition for the outcome of the trial. Gene Hackman is one of the best actors working today, and needless to say, he is excellent in his role. One actor I didn't mention at the outset is Dustin Hoffman who, though is generally regarded as one of the greatest American actors, is the weak link in this outstanding cast. Playing the plaintiff's attorney, Hoffman is little more than a caricature of his former self. He basically mugs his way through this role, doing a passable job, but in no means does he raise the bar.

As a fast-paced thriller, Jury performs above expectations, though as a courtroom drama it is merely adequate. It definitely has an agenda, but succeeds in limiting the preaching and doesn't let it's anti-gun leanings get in the way of the action. The jury scenes, however, which should be the heart and soul of the film, leave a little to be desired. The interactions between the jurors is interesting and well played, but there is a certain promise to these relationships that is never realized. Set-ups go unfulfilled, and some members of the jury are underused. That said, the film doesn't get bogged down, and keeps a pretty steady clip.

Runaway Jury is a solid courtroom thriller that will do well at the box office, and well on video, but is not likely to be remembered much beyond that. It is solid and enjoyable, and does have moments of pure cinematic joy, but is not unique or creative enough to leave a lasting impression. It does renew my faith in John Grisham movies, however, and for that, at least, I'm thankful. Civic service is sometimes a pain, but this is one Jury that does it's duty well. Grade: B+

Runaway Jury is rated PG-13 for brief language and violence.



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