October 30, 2003

Runaway Jury

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That Runaway Jury is a good movie is about as surprising as the Lakers winning the 2002 NBA finals. With a foolproof storyline (thanks to being based on a best-selling John Grisham novel), a star-studded cast, and Gene Hackman portraying a sinister, dark-suited villain, Gary Fleder’s legal thriller was bound for triumph from the very first day of production.

Unlike self-consciously subtle, meta, and twisty films of questionable quality, Jury is effective because it presents itself honestly, showing us all the cards and not afraid of being your garden-variety legal thriller. Meticulous in its storytelling, the movie plays like an expertly guided tour through the more exciting aspects of trial law.

Our journey begins with a plot symptomatic of the legal genre. The crime: a disgruntled stockbroker commits a horrendous shooting at his former firm and immediately thereafter turns the weapon on himself. The issue on trial: the widow of a victim decides to sue the company responsible for manufacturing the gun that killed her husband, entrusting her cause to seasoned attorney, Wendell Rohr (Dustin Hoffman). The twist: after cynically deciding that winning trials through skilled lawyers are a thing of the past, a classic “axis of evil” composed of multiple gun company owners hire expert jury consultant Rankin Fitch (apparently Abercrombie was unavailable), played by Gene Hackman, to guarantee a win for their side. The twistier twist: a third party composed of juror Nicholas Easter (John Cusack) and his accomplice, Marlee (Rachel Weisz) also enter the game, upsetting Fitch’s monopoly over the jury while offering to sell to the highest bidder any verdict of their choice.

Seemingly bleak, as well as complex, the multi-layered plot is probably the main reason why the movie lasts more than two hours. Another contributor to the lengthy duration is a massive cast of stock characters, each complete with first and last names. Stand outs among the dramatis personae include the stereotypically southern Judge Harkin (Bruce McGill) and slimy defense attorney Durwood Cable (Bruce Davison).

Despite an intricate set up, Jury is light on the legal jargon, refusing to be bogged down by technical elements. We’re spared another inaccurate Hollywood-ized lesson in trial law through dramatic court proceedings and therein lies the movie’s refreshing allure. For once, the trial does not eclipse all other components of the film and instead of Tom Cruise-caliber shouting matches between lawyers, we get a fleshed out perspective of the actual people behind the proceedings.

Hackman, like most figures of absolute moral depravity in film, delivers a lot of declarative statements, which if compiled could probably produce a book on the ideology of evil. His amoral “man behind the scenes” contrasts sharply with the homegrown idealism of Hoffman’s Rohr. Although I would have enjoyed more character interaction between Hackman and Hoffman, being a thriller, Jury was bound to involve a lot of close-call evasive action rather than verbal confrontation.

Coherent and comfortably paced, Jury is a result of successful planning. Most of what makes it good lies not in execution but rather in securing a guaranteed result through a careful script, written by Brian Koppelman, David Levien, Rick Cleveland, and Mathew Chapman, and the massive star appeal of its main cast. Although Hackman and Hoffman are undoubtedly skilled thespians, neither tapped into the full breadth of their acting ability. Fleder knows we are here to see Hackman and Hoffman finally share a scene in a movie, not to see the two former classmates portray courtroom rivals.

Jury is also not lacking in its collection of clich