June 21, 2003
Starring: John Cusack, Gene Hackman, Dustin Hoffman, Rachel Weisz, Bruce Davison, Bruce McGill, Jeremy Piven, Nick Searcy, Stanley Anderson, Cliff Curtis, Nestor Serrano, Leland Orser, Jennifer Beals, Gerry Bamman, Joanna Going, ,
The umpteenth John Grisham courtroom drama also happens to be one of the best, with Cusack, Hoffman and Hackman chewing the scenery like hungry dogs.
You’d be forgiven for passing by Runaway Jury in the shops, thinking it was just another Grisham money-maker about New Orleans lawyers in sweaty suits debating over a ground-breaking legal case but, like the film itself, appearances can be deceiving. The central theme may have changed in the long years leading up to production (cigarettes became guns after The Insider stole their thunder), but the overall story remains taught and engaging thanks to Gary Fleder, who is slowly building himself up as one of the best thriller directors around. The film also offers the same eagerly awaited pairing of Hollywood heavyweights that made Heat so memorable with Pacino and De Niro (this time we get Hackman and Hoffman; friends for fifty years but never seen on screen together until now).
John Cusack is Nick Easter, a cocky, money-strapped everyman who gets picked for jury duty one day. The case revolves around a wife who wants to sue the gun company who provided a killer with a weapon to murder her husband and other random people with. Is the company to blame for the murders, or the individual? Rankin Fitch (Hackman) is on the defence and has every means necessary to secure his employers’ ‘not guilty’ verdict using bribes, threats and the latest surveilance technology available. Wendell Rohr (Hoffman) is an old-school believer in justice who is determined to make changes in the law relating to gun control. But Nick and his girlfriend Marlee (Weisz) have their own agenda and start playing both sides against each other for money, claiming Nick can sway the jury’s decision from the inside for $10 million.
Despite all the flashy shutter-speed changes and electronic gizmos blinking in Hackman’s secret HQ, what we have here is really an old-school coutroom drama that relies entirely on its script and actors to keep you hooked. And it succeeds by keeping the momentum going throughout and giving the jury valid topics for debate – only at the climax does the film get preachy, and the pros and cons of gun-use are mostly well thought out.
The joy is in watching the con-artists get conned and then seeing what tricks they’ll pull next to make things go their way. The veteran actors have got the most kudos, but this is Cusack’s show too and he does an excellent job being a harmless observer one minute and then slyly swaying opinions the next. If Weisz is playing a similar character to the one she played in Confidence (also with Hoffman), she still holds her own as the enigmatic puppet-master who might be out of her depth.
If you allow yourself to stop and think during the energetic pacing, the twist isn’t entirely unpredictable, but you’ve had so much fun watching everyone run rings around each other that you don’t particularly care about the small stuff (such as Jeremy Piven’s character being forgotten halfway through, or a cliche’d fight where people throw each other across the room and manage to destroy everything in their way) . Runaway Jury isn’t perfect and, make no mistake, if you don’t like courtroom dramas, this won’t sway you, but as an example of the genre this is first-rate stuff from all concerned.
Lots of little bite-size chunks here, with subjects focusing on Hackman and Hoffman discussing their long friendship (“I knew you’d tell that fucking story,” Hoffman moans during one particular anecdote), the legendary bathroom scene with…Hoffman and Hackman, ‘The Making of Runaway Jury’ with Hoffman and Hackman – you get the idea. There are also featurettes on New Orleans, Cinematography, Editing, Acting in an Ensemble and deleted scenes with commentary. There’s also a feature commentary with Fleder who discusses his choices about changing things from the book (there was no scene with Fitch and Rohr in the original script, which was about Tobacco) and how the opening scene is a nod to Psycho.
The charge: Being a good thriller. The verdict: Guilty as charged.