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The good thing about a movie based on a John Grisham novel is that it's pretty much guaranteed to be interesting. There are always plenty of twists and turns and as long as the filmmakers don't try anything too fancy, the film is a slam-dunk. This is exactly the case with Runaway Jury. There is plenty of stuff to keep you interested, not one dull scene, and the film's subject matter (gun control) provides plenty of fodder for a post-film discussion. Moreover, the story seems like it could actually happen.
Runaway Jury is based around a fictional civil case of a widow suing the manufacturer of the gun that killed her husband. She alleges that the manufacturer was negligent in their marketing and distribution policy and is seeking damages in the millions of dollars. The outcome of the case is important to the gun manufacturers who are concerned that, if they lose, a precedent will be set and the floodgates will be opened for future lawsuits.
In addition hiring a top-notch lawyer, the gun companies employ a man named Rankin Fitch to aid in "jury selection." Fitch not only creates an elaborate profile of each prospective juror, he collects blackmail material on them. A woman who had a secret abortion, a man who hasn't told his wife he has AIDS; according to Fitch, "Everybody has a secret they don't want you to find."
Opposing Rankin is down-home lawyer Wendell Rohr. Rohr, the antithesis of Fitch, refuses to believe a verdict can be manipulated or "bought." He insists that his client has a strong case against the gun companies and trusts the jurors to vote with their hearts.
But there are two people neither Fitch nor Rohr could have expected. One is a mysterious woman calling herself Marlee, and the other is a juror named Nicholas Easter.
The highlight of this film is the performance by Gene Hackman. Runaway Jury is Hackman's third turn in a Grisham-based film and he is precise in his portrayal of the ruthless Rankin Fitch. It's the kind of role Hackman can handle in his sleep: gruff, brilliant, and full of malice (somewhat reminiscent of his role in The Firm). Admittedly, when coupled with the dramatic music that plagues Grisham films, Hackman's performance can eek towards over-the-top, but he manages to be reserved when it counts.
The rest of the cast is in top form as well. Dustin Hoffman is pitch-perfect as the traditionalist lawyer Rohr. I haven't enjoyed him in a film this much since Wag the Dog. John Cusack is solid as everyday guy Nick Easter, and Rachel Weisz is the least annoying she's ever been.
But wait! As with all things Grisham, there is a twist! In the novel, the case was against big tobacco, not gun manufacturers. For whatever reason, the filmmakers have exchanged tobacco for guns in transitioning the story from book to screen. One could speculate at the reasons (loss of product placement money from tobacco food subsidiaries, anti-tobacco is old news), but no official answer has been given. Regardless, there you have it. This movie is chok full of post-film discussion over coffee or dinner and here is one more item for the list.
Runaway Jury doesn't break any new ground cinematically, but it succeeds for exactly that reason. Aside from changing the defendant in the lawsuit, the filmmakers take no chances and deliver a smart, well-acted thriller.
Megan A. Denny