[Screen It]

(2003) (John Cusack, Gene Hackman) (PG-13)

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Drama: A juror and his accomplice try to coerce lawyers on both sides of a high profile civil case into paying them in exchange for swaying the jury their way.
Rankin Fitch (GENE HACKMAN) is a highly successful and pricey jury consultant whose firm investigates potential jurors to such a fine degree that they can pretty much help their clients choose a jury that will vote their way. He's recently been hired by Garland Jankle (STANLEY ANDERSON), the CEO of Vicksburg Firearms, a gun manufacturer and plaintiff in a high profile civil court case brought on by the widow of a man gunned down by one their products.

Employing a large team of high tech workers and investigators, including Doyle (NICK SEARCY), Fitch is working closely with the lead counsel for the defense, Durwood Cable (BRUCE DAVISON), in picking out jurors likely to be friendly to their argument.

On the other side of the case is the decidedly low-tech Wendall Rohr (DUSTIN HOFFMAN), a New Orleans attorney. Against his better judgment, he's hired his own jury consultant, Lawrence Green (JEREMY PIVEN), but relies on his knowledge of the law and gut instincts more than any outside help.

Among the jurors selected is Nick Easter (JOHN CUSACK), who's reluctant to serve; ex-drill sergeant Frank Herrera (CLIFF CURTIS); Herman Grimes (GERRY BAMMAN), who's blind; secret drinker Stella Hullic (NORA DUNN) and others. Ruled over by Judge Harkin (BRUCE McGILL), they prepare to hear the case. Just as it begins, however, both sides receive an anonymous note indicating that the jury is for sale.

While Rohr blows it off as a ploy by the defense, Fitch takes it seriously and begins to investigate where it's from. He eventually discovers that one of the jurors is in cahoots with the letter writer, Marlee (RACHEL WEISZ), who informs both sides that they can purchase a jury decision for the right price. With millions of dollars at stake, the outside forces try to manipulate the legal teams, all while Fitch tries to crack down on the outsiders.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
Having served as a juror, gone through the jury selection process several times and seen some ineptitude on all related fronts - public, professional and criminal - I still stand by the notion that we should have professional juries. While that would somewhat diminish the judged by one's peers concept, it would eliminate a greater and more disturbing number of problems with the current system.

After seeing "Runaway Jury," one might come to the same conclusion, but the antagonists in the film have a different but related agenda. Rather than employing permanent jurors to improve the legal proceedings, jury specialist Rankin Fitch wants to insure that his client gets the verdict for which they're paying him to produce.

Jury selection and even manipulation have long been a practice in judicial proceedings, but in this adaptation of author John Grisham's best selling novel, it takes on a twist. You see, the character - played by the always reliable Gene Hackman (appearing in his third Grisham movie following "The Firm" and "The Chamber") - will go to any means to get a not-guilty verdict for his gun manufacturer client.

Reminiscent of Grisham's other works in turning everyday legal matters into dramatic thrillers, the film has the right intentions and a terrific cast. Yet, plot holes of varying sizes, some stilted dialogue, contrivances, and uneven character reactions and motivation, not to mention some moments of heavy-handed and far too obvious filmmaking undermine the effort.

Less discerning viewers might not mind or even notice those problems - particularly if they get caught up in the polished bit of storytelling - but others will likely be distracted to varying degrees. Films with twists, turns and veiled intentions and agendas sometimes try too hard to be clever and end up tripping over themselves and their accompanying baggage.

That's certainly the case here. I'm not intimately familiar with Grisham's source novel, but can only hope, assume and believe that at least some of the troubles didn't exist there. I can't go into too much of a detailed analysis of the issues without giving away some of the surprises and/or developments. Suffice it to say, however, there are numerous points when viewers will likely think "Huh?" and question the validity of what transpires.

For instance (this example doesn't spoil anything), it seems highly unlikely that a juror could sneak out of the jury room and convince the judge - who's dining nearby - to spring for the jury's lunch (and drinks) in that same restaurant while he's still there. Either side could call for a mistrial armed with such knowledge.

Such moments are designed to show how clever, smart and/or resourceful that jury member truly is. Yet, they only serve to distract the viewer and remove him or her from the proceedings. Had the professional jury idea been in place, the film's most gaping plot hole (from which everything stems) would have been a non-issue, but that's not the case, resulting in much of what occurs being too far-fetched. Sadly, a few rather simple script tweaks here and there could have remedied that and many of the other problems.

Somewhat surprisingly, the film is far more about the involved conning and backroom activities than the actual case, which is odd considering the obvious posturing the film takes on the issue of guns and related malfeasance. With that in mind, there's little doubt about how everything will turn out.

All of which is a shame since the film could have been far more interesting - on varying levels - with a more nebulous approach. In addition, unless one has strong opinions about the gun issue, we're never really involved enough to root for one side or the other to win the court case.

Notwithstanding all of that and the aforementioned problems, director Gary Fleder ("Impostor," "Kiss the Girls") - who works from the adaptation of Grisham's novel by Brian Koppelman & David Levien ("Rounders," "Knockaround Guys), Rick Cleveland (making his feature debut) and Matthew Chapman ("What's the Worst That Could Happen" "Color of Night") - gives everything a highly polished veneer and keeps things moving forward at a fairly good clip.

Essentially turning a two-way battle into one with three combatants - the plaintiff, defense and a conniving jury member and their outside assistant - the film certainly isn't without intriguing and occasionally engaging material.

It also benefits from a terrific cast that includes Hackman and Jeremy Piven ("Old School," "The Family Man") as competing jury consultants; John Cusack ("Identity," "Max") as a questionable juror (and then some); Dustin Hoffman ("Confidence," "Moonlight Mile") as the plaintiff's old-fashioned attorney and Rachel Weisz ("Confidence," "About a Boy") as the manipulative outsider with a secret agenda.

The film's highlight is supposed to be the big confrontation between Hackman and Hoffman's characters. While it's okay, it pales in comparison to other similar, high-profile movie pairings such as Pacino and De Niro in "Heat."

Supporting performances from the likes of Bruce Davison ("X2," "High Crimes"), Bruce McGill ("Matchstick Men," "The Sum of All Fears") and Nick Searcy ("One Hour Photo," "Cast Away") are all fine. That is, as long as one doesn't mind any number of various plot and character problems involving them and others.

If you just want to sit back and watch a legal thriller without involving your better senses, you might enjoy the offerings. It certainly looks terrific, features a great cast and offers an intriguing premise. On the other hand, if you're a detail-oriented person who can easily spot the cracks in any cinematic foundation, this effort will look progressively unstable at is builds to its climax.

Had those various problems been patched with relatively easy fixes, this might have been a top-notch offering. As it stands, the film's annoying and obvious troubles might not be enough to warrant a movie mistrial, but they do mean that "Runaway Jury" only rates as a 5 out of 10.

Reviewed October 10, 2003 / Posted October 17, 2003

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