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With: John Cusack, Gene Hackman, Dustin Hoffman, Rachel Weisz, Bruce Davison, Bruce McGill, Jeremy Piven, Jennifer Beals, Joanna Going, Luis Guzman, Bill Nunn, Nora Dunn
Written by: Matthew Chapman, Rick Cleveland, Brian Koppelman and David Levien, based on the novel by John Grisham
Directed by: Gary Fleder
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for violence, language and thematic elements
Running Time: 127
Date: 10/09/2003

Runaway Jury (2003)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

'Jury' with the Fringe on Top

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

As much as I hate jury duty, courtroom movies fascinate me.

The courtroom itself is arranged in a kind of Greek tableau, with the judge elevated over everyone, the bailiff taking records, the jury watching like a group of peeping toms, and the good vs. evil lawyers stationed on the right and left.

Best-selling author John Grisham tends to come up with interesting ideas for court cases, even if they inevitably get dumbed down by the notion that the general public will nod off unless they get a few car chases, foot chases, fights and maybe even a fire or two.

Only two directors have made anything good out of Grisham stories, Francis Ford Coppola with The Rainmaker and Robert Altman with The Gingerbread Man.

Director Gary Fleder, whose credits range from the mediocre (Kiss the Girls and Don't Say a Word) to the underrated (Impostor,) makes out of the new film Runaway Jury at best a guilty pleasure and at worst a clumsy example of Hollywood excess.

John Cusack stars as Nicholas Easter, an amiable guy who works in an electronics/video game store whose life is disrupted when he gets called for jury duty. He tries his best to get off the case -- a widow suing a gun company for selling the automatic weapons used to kill her husband -- but winds up squarely in the jury box.

It turns out that this was his plan all along. He and his outside accomplice Marlee (Rachel Weisz) actually wanted to get on a jury so that Nick can use his considerable charm to sway the jury into voting his way.

Behind the scenes, professional jury selector Rankin Fitch (Gene Hackman) uses computers and surveillance methods to profile potential jurors in advance. His motto? "Trials are too important to be decided by juries."

His pro-gun flunky lawyer (Bruce Davison) basically does his bidding, while liberal good-guy lawyer Wendell Rohr (Dustin Hoffman) actually tries to do the right thing.

Finally, Marlee tries to complicate things by swindling both Fitch and Rohr out of $10 million in exchange for their preferred verdict.

Fleder and screenwriters Matthew Chapman, Rick Cleveland, Brian Koppelman and David Levien stumble right out of the starting gate with an unbelievably stupid opening scene. Dylan McDermott plays the soon-to-be dead man who very nearly dances into work one morning, wishing everyone happy days and practically showing everyone pictures of his wife and kids.

The director also stages several by-the-book chases and fights, which ironically accomplish exactly the opposite of what they were intended to do; they slow the picture down. Actors this good should not be insulted by having to play such scenes.

But aside from these and other brain-dead moments, Fleder coaxes hugely appealing performances from his leads, especially in their poker-faced verbal one-upsmanships with each other. Hackman, especially, can do this kind of role in his sleep, but he still seems to relish it -- he devours every word as if he were still a greenhorn hoping to grab his share of the limelight. Strangely enough, former roommates Hackman and Hoffman have never made a movie together before this, and their enormous joy is addictive.

Fleder has cast an admirable collection of supporting players to round out the film, notably Jeremy Piven as Rohr's sidekick and Luis Guzman, Jennifer Beals, Nora Dunn and Joanna Going as members of the jury, even though they barely have any lines. I suppose a mega-production such as this can afford to cast actors simply for their familiarity, but imagine having Luis Guzman in your movie and not giving him anything to do!

A decidedly mixed bag, Runaway Jury just goes to show that courtroom movies are far too interesting to be left up to Hollywood. But it's a heck of a lot more fun than jury duty.

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